Good News for Students in Philly!

June 17, 2009

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

Since 1991, the School District of Philadelphia has offered either breakfast or lunch at no cost to 121,000 of the District's 167,000 students. This Universal Feeding Program was conceived as a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the School District of Philadelphia. Established as a pilot program, it replaces the normal practice of requiring applications to be filled out, returned and processed to determine eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. Instead, a socioeconomic survey establishes the approximate eligibility rates at select schools.

Earlier this year, the USDA had announced that it would adopt a decision by the Bush administration to end the Philadelphia pilot program after the 2009-2010 school year. Following that announcement, Philadelphia school administrators and Pennsylvania elected officials, including Sen. Arlen Specter and Gov. Ed Rendell, protested the USDA’s decision to end the Universal Feeding Program.

On June 5, USDA Secretary Vilsack accepted a plan put forward by Congressman Chaka Fattah and others that would have the Universal Feeding Program program continue through the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, operating as it had throughout the duration of the pilot. Said Fattah, “We both agreed that the reauthorization process was the best context in which to consider the future of the pilot”

School administrators in Philadelphia such as Arlene Ackerman, Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, attribute the success of the pilot to the fact that it is paperless. Because student eligibility is based on demographic surveys of family income rather than individual application, a higher proportion of eligible students participate in the school meal program. When students are responsible for providing the information, forms are often incomplete or are not returned.

Families with the lowest incomes and in the greatest need are often the least likely to return complete applications. In the Philadelphia pilot, this problem is averted and the children have access to meals they need to stay healthy and learn.

Philadelphia school administrators and elected officials have pledged to work with the committees who will take up the Child Nutrition Act later this year – in the  House of Representatives, the Education and Labor Committee, and in the Senate, the Agriculture Committee  – to ensure that the lessons learned in the Philadelphia pilot are reflected in the final legislation. 

We applaud Congressman Fattah’s commitment to finding a permanent and national universal paperless school lunch program.