From the Kitchen to the Congress: A Child Nutrition Reauthorization Blog

The Philadelphia Universal School Meals Program

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May 29, 2009 - In 1991 the US Department of Agriculture approved a Universal Feeding pilot program for the School District of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania that replaced the school meal application process with one based on sophisticated surveys of poor populations to determine if students qualified for free or reduced price school meals. Last fall the USDA announced that the Philadelphia program would be phased out.

SNA, anti-hunger organizations and several members of Congress from Pennsylvania spoke out last fall in support of continuing the pilot. Last week USDA under the Obama Administration announced that the decision to end the Philadelphia program would stand and that the program would end this school year.

In the late 1980’s USDA proposed a pilot program as part of an effort to reduce paperwork and create an alternative method for counting students eligible for free or reduced lunches. The Department was interested in eliminating the stigma associated with free and reduced price lunch as well as addressing paperwork barriers to participation for families. In 1991, Philadelphia schools began the pilot program, replacing the practice of requiring school meal applications to be filled out, returned, and processed to determine eligibility for free or reduced price lunches. Instead, a socio-demographic survey established the approximate eligibility rates at select schools where a large percentage of the students would be eligible. The school district then offered every student at those schools free meals and the USDA reimbursed the district at the rate determined by the survey. The School District of Philadelphia covered the cost for the remaining meals. The program in Philadelphia has resulted in increased participation in the school meal program while also saving considerable funds that would normally be spent on the school meal application process.

This week members of the Philadelphia Congressional delegation introduced new efforts to continue the pilot and expand it to other large urban school districts. Representative Joe Sestak (D-PA) has indicated that he intends to introduce legislation soon that would allow the Philadelphia program to continue and provide the opportunity for other large urban districts, such as Los Angeles Unified School District and New York City Public Schools, interested in following the same program to do so. 

The School Nutrition Association has long supported universal school meals as the goal for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. Without receiving proper nutrition, children are not likely to perform to their best academic ability.

Opposition to ending school meals program grows - Philadelphia Inquirer