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Breakfast and lunch for everyone, but not for long?

  • breakfast
    Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sketch22

Children need breakfast

(a) every day

(b) only on days they go to school

(c) only on days they take standardized tests

(d) never

It seems like some Philadelphia principals think the answer is (c). Which is beyond the understanding of child advocates who have been pushing Philadelphia school officials for decades -- with success -- on child nutrition.

One of the best things the School District of Philadelphia ever did was convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow it to serve lunch to every child in very poor schools rather than spend money on the bureaucratic task of sorting out the many eligible from the very few ineligible students. It was a case of District officials taking the initiative, under prodding from child advocates. 

In 1991, the District teamed up with demographers and statisticians at Temple University to calculate the poverty levels of the census tracts in each school’s neighborhood and designated those in the poorest neighborhoods – where more than 70 percent of the children lived below the poverty line – “universal feeding” schools. That meant every child got lunch for free, without having to apply. And this program is still in effect, although possibly in peril (more on that later).

Even so, it has been somewhat behind in serving breakfast, another USDA entitlement for which most city schoolchildren qualify. As late as 2007, just 43,000 of 146,000 children eligible for free breakfast were actually participating in the program, ranking Philadelphia 16th out of 23 big cities in participation rates.

In the beginning of the 2007 school year it began serving breakfast to all elementary school students, and this year it expanded that to all students – although it made no public announcement of this.

However, as we found out from Al Lubrano in The Inquirer in this story, the participation rates vary widely from school to school. In fact, say the advocates, some of whom have been pushing this issue for decades, some principals tend to make sure that children are fed on testing days, but not at other times.

It’s a puzzle to people like Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services, who has been at the forefront of this issue forever and is trying to get District leaders to count school breakfast and lunch participation on the school report card that Supt. Arlene Ackerman is using to judge schools and principals. Lubrano’s story cited a District analysis (which we are attempting to obtain) showing that breakfast participation at individual schools range from 18 percent to 98 percent. 

It appears that ambivalence about feeding children is at all government levels, from the UDSA on down. As the USDA was expanding school breakfast, it also apparently decided to end Philadelphia’s universal lunch feeding by requiring all students and their families to prove eligibility individually. 

When universal feeding started here, the policy was hailed as win-win. Since the USDA reimbursed the District for each meal served, the District got more money back – important, because it paid staff to serve the lunches regardless. The USDA, presumably, was secure in the knowledge that the money it was spending on the program was actually feeding children instead of paying people to push paper. Families and students didn’t have to worry about the stigma of qualifying, which cut down on applications, especially in high schools. And, most importantly, more children ate. 

Philadelphia was the largest of five pilot districts, and the hope then was to spread the program to other cities. But the other districts dropped out at the end of the four year trial period, and it never expanded, although Philadelphia has managed to keep it going. 

Alas, perhaps not for long. The USDA at the tail end of the Bush administration announced it planned to require students and families to begin applying individually. I’m told that the Obama administration has not made a decision yet on whether to pursue that. Other cities, it seems, are catching on and would like to replicate Philadelphia’s program, and the government is reluctant. Although it can actually be cheaper to feed all students than to weed out those who aren’t technically eligible, it nevertheless offends some to think that a few families may be getting something they aren’t strictly entitled to. 

I began covering this story in 1983, when I was in the Inquirer’s Washington, DC bureau, and advocates sued the Reagan Administration to prevent onerous regulations that would have required school districts to verify the income of every family that applied. I wrote about it again in 1987, when Supt. Constance Clayton ordered all high schools to serve lunch – not all did, scheduling lunch at the end of the day; in 1991 when Philadelphia won approval for universal feeding, and in 1995 when Republicans in Congress threatened to gut entire school nutrition budget

Nutrition is a no-brainer. Let’s hope that the people in charge have figured this out.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.