Every year I dread the paperwork that comes with the first week of school. Emergency information cards. “About my kid” forms that the teachers request. Insurance forms that must be read and signed even if we’re not getting the insurance. PTA forms. And free or reduced lunch forms that must be filled out even if I’m not requesting that my children get them.

For me those forms are a minor annoyance. But imagine being a parent working two or three jobs and trying to find the time to fill out all those papers. Or an uneducated or illiterate parent who looks at those papers and can’t make heads or tails of them. Or a parent who just doesn’t give a darn and never looks in a backpack.

Then imagine being a kid who has to go without breakfast or lunch every day because no one filled out a piece of paper for you.

Apparently, it happens. But not in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia there is a Universal Feeding program. All kids can get a free breakfast or lunch. Period. It’s been that way for almost two decades.

That might change though. The USDA is saying “it isn’t fair.” It isn’t fair that kids in Philadelphia aren’t going hungry during their school day when kids in other districts are. It isn’t fair that Philadelphia has had a successful program for all this time when other cities have not. It isn’t fair that school officials in Philadelphia don’t have to process paperwork, saving them an estimated $800,000 a year.

It would seem the logical thing to do would be to institute similar programs in other cities. But no. The USDA is planning on putting an end to the Universal Feeding program. According to Philly.com, the USDA is “insisting that the paperwork be used, which will result in fewer poor children eating, advocates say.”

Advocates added that they may sue the USDA over the decision, which they said was especially puzzling given President Obama's vow to end childhood hunger by 2015.

In an interview last week, Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Janey Thornton said "it isn't fair" that Philadelphia is the only city with this program. She added, "We have to treat all districts in the country alike." She further cited problems she had with the program's statistical underpinnings, which she condemned as "no longer accurate" and "completely out of date."

There’s confusion about the end of the program, too. The USDA wrote a letter to Congress saying it ends at the close of this school year. There’s other paperwork indicating the program has another year before it ends. And officials in Philadelphia say they haven’t gotten official word about the ending of the program so they will continue on as usual.

I’ve made it no secret that I’m not a fan of the typical school lunch. The lunches that our kids are given in cafeterias need to include fewer additives, preservatives, artificial colors and sugar in its many forms. We need to ramp up the availability of fresh vegetables and fruits. Processed chicken nuggets stuffed with high fructose corn syrup and French fries or tater tots day after day is not what we should be feeding our kids. But, I’ll admit, it’s better than nothing.

Mariana Chilton, a hunger expert and a professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia believes the effects of ending the program will be devastating.

"If this happens," she said, "going back to paper will doom thousands and thousands of children who will go without meals. It doesn't make sense."

Asked about Chilton's remark, Thornton said, "You are likely to lose a few. You might. It will be difficult the first year to get parents to understand they are going to have to fill out applications, but we need to be able to answer to other school districts who say, 'How come Philadelphia gets to do this and we can't? I have no answer for that.”

Apparently, when it comes down to it, it’s about politics and not the kids.

I’m certainly not an expert on school lunch programs in cities. But I know a little something about kids. And when they are hungry, they can’t concentrate. The USDA is working backwards here. They need to come up with a program that works for all districts. Once they do, institute it in Philadelphia as well as the rest of the country. Until they do, they need to leave Philadelphia alone. Don’t you agree?

Feel free to stop reading here cause there’s a (mostly) unrelated rant coming up.


Here’s the first paragraph of the Philly.com piece

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting a Bush administration edict to end a well-regarded Philadelphia school breakfast and lunch program, according to a high-ranking USDA official.
Why, oh why, is this being blamed on the Bush administration? It’s gone. The Obama administration is the one that is going to carry out the termination of the program. Say it. Call it like it is.

Many in media are so in love with blaming everything on “the Bush administration” that they can’t stop doing it even when there is no longer a Bush administration.

President Obama and his administration do a lot of good. But when they don’t, we’ve got to say it. Really, it’s okay. Our president can handle it.

End rant. 

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

USDA messes with Philly's free lunches
There's a free lunch program in Philadelphia that works well for all kids in the city. So naturally, the government wants to scrap it.