USDA nixes Philly pilot

Director says move will hurt students, district.

PHILADELPHIA—The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to terminate the 17-year-old Universal Feeding Program, at the 167,000-student School District of Philadelphia as of 2010. This means the district will now have to collect and process free- and reduced-priced meal applications if parents want their children to continue receiving meals through the federal reimbursement program. It also means students will have to start paying for meals if they do not qualify for a free meal. Under the universal program all students received free breakfast and lunch.

Wayne Grasela, senior vice president in charge of the district’s foodservices, said it would cost the district $800,000 a year to collect and process these applications. “We will be taking huge steps back if we have to do this,” he said. “We have the technology [to make collecting applications irrelevant], and we’re returning to a system recognized in 1990 as not being effective.”

The program began in 1991 as a way for the district to eliminate the need for paper applications. Instead, the district commissioned a survey from Temple University to determine the percentage of those students in each school who qualified for free- and reduced-priced meals. The survey showed that 200 of the nearly 300 schools had a high percentage of low-income students. The district then decided that in those schools that had at least a 75% low-income population, every student would receive free breakfast and lunch every day. The district would only claim the actual number of students who qualified for free- and reduced-priced meals as determined by the survey for reimbursement from the federal program. For example, if a 100-student school had a 70% free percentage, 10% reduced percentage and 20% paid percentage, the district would claim 70 free meals and 10 reduced meals.

Grasela said because the stigma of free lunch was removed, more students participated in the meal programs, especially in the secondary schools. He said the increase in participation offset any lost revenue the district would have received from students who did not qualify for free or reduced meals and who were now receiving meals for free. In the first year of the pilot, lunch participation increased 180% in the high schools and breakfast overall increased 26%.

Under the guidelines of the pilot, the district would redo the study every four years to make sure the numbers were accurate. The study costs the district $550,000 each time, meaning the district will pay an estimated $2.65 million more every four years after the pilot is terminated in 2010 to collect and process applications.
Grasela is not sure why the USDA decided to pull the plug on the program. Some politicians including State Representative Bob Casey, have suggested it was eliminated after other large districts like New York and Los Angeles expressed an interest in starting a similar program. 
“I’m hopeful we can come to some sort of compromise, and we appreciate all the support the USDA has lent us in the process,” Grasela said, adding that the program will not go down without a fight.