May 24, 2009

Killing Universal Feeding

There's a distressing story in the Philly Inquirer today about the cancellation of the "Universal Feeding" program in Philly schools. Here's the skinny:
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.

Antihunger advocates are outraged, saying many poor children who normally get free lunch and breakfast may go without if the USDA ends the program, the only one of its kind in the country.

Known as Universal Feeding, the program allows more than 120,000 students in poor schools to eat free meals without having to fill out applications. Children and their families in poor communities don't always complete such forms. The USDA, however, is insisting that 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she had with the program's statistical underpinnings, which she condemned as "no longer accurate" and "completely out of date."

The article goes on to explain the lengths to which the Philadelphia-area congressional delegation (as well as Sen. Bob Casey -- who sits on the Ag Committee) have gone to save the program. And it mentions that Ag Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin himself is a fan of Universal Feeding and has suggested it be made a national program. And it's unclear exactly when the USDA proposes to end the program -- some say this fall, others at the USDA have suggested it won't end until after the 2010-2011 school year. Looks like Vilsack hasn't quite worked out all the kinks at the People's Department. But all indications are the program will indeed be killed.

It's easy to overlook the hurdle that requiring paperwork and active enrollment in benefit programs represents to poor people. It's one of the greatest barriers to takeup of many anti-poverty programs in this country. And it was dropping that requirement that, according to the Inqy, that made the program work like a charm, "with the participation rate in the Universal Feeding sites almost twice the rate in non-Universal sites - 80 percent vs. 45 percent, according to state figures."

But what I found most distressing were the comments by the USDA's Janey Thornton -- head of the Food and Nutrition Service and the person in charge of all federal nutrition programs. Yes, there's a fairness issue, but the answer is not to kill a successful program. And nowhere does she mention any belief in the value of the program. Meanwhile her utter dismissiveness of the crucial role "automatic opt-in" plays is startling. Here she is responding to the objection that adding paperwork will cause some to drop out of the program:
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. And 17 years is a long, long time for a pilot program."
If the figures above are any indication, it's possible you might "lose" almost half of the participants. That could be thousands of kids not getting fed -- and for all the legitimate complaints about food quality, there's no question that the federal school lunch program provides food to hungry kids. As for the "statistical underpinnings" of the program being out-of-date, experts are quoted in the article saying that Thornton's claim is a load of hooey. And even if losing half the kids is an overstatement, there's a difference between requiring further study before a program's renewal and canceling a program without further study. She talks like the worst kind of government bureaucrat and does not sound AT ALL like a reform-minded one. One of the knocks on her when she was appointed was that she came from a small, suburban district. Well, in her first decision concerning an urban, high-poverty district, she comes off sounding frankly out of her depth.

Curiously, the Universal Feeding program's signature feature is the kind of no-paperwork, automatic enrollment style of government benefit that OMB chief Peter Orszag and his deputy Cass Sunstein are supposed to be championing these days. So it's hard to believe this USDA decision really represents the administration's view on how to reform nutrition or that it was carefully vetted before being announced. I'm curious to hear more from Vilsack, who reportedly met with Philly reps before word came out of the program's demise. It's also possible that this is all a terrible mixup, that the Philly program -- possibly one of the longest "pilot programs" the federal government has ever run -- will live on in national form once the federal nutrition programs are reauthorized later this year. Still, at a minimum, Janey Thornton has some more explaining to do.

Photo by chalkdog used under a CC license

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree that this program should be saved. I work with UNITEHERE Local 634 which is the school lunch and breakfast workers union and we will be raising this issue with the District later this week when we meet. Clearly students will be more inclined to learn if they are not hungry.

Blogger future reference said...

You'd think they were deliberately trying to keep whole populations disadvantaged when they cut programs like this. What is the literacy rate among the parents who have to fill out the forms? This is a willful act to ensure the cycle of poverty.

Blogger Minh Chau said...

Much of the concerns over eliminating the Pilot program was due to the belief that, under Provision 2, students would no longer receive free lunches. This was a misrepresentation of the facts as distributed by the media and politicians. Looking at the actual guidelines from the USDA’s website for Provision 2, it is clear that all students would still retain the benefit of free meals. The major differences would had been procedural, along with the distribution of costs, rather than whether students would continue to receive their free meals. See my post here.

Anonymous Curtain said...

I worked in a low-income Philadelphia school (through an outside agency- not the school system itself) for 2 and a half years starting in 2009. Everyone in the school is required to take a lunch (and sometimes breakfast- breakfast is used as a prep period) whether or not they brought one from home or will eat it. The food is prepackaged and over-processed. Often the vegetable/fruit category is simply fruit juice. On sandwich days (usually very thickly sliced bologna or turkey ham), most of the kids tossed their food into the share table. At the end of a lunch period, anything in the share table is thrown out. I knew parents who, fully within their means, provided breakfast and lunch for their children every day and stopped when they discovered their child was receiving meals at school. The schools require even those who don't need or want it to take the lunches so they can continue to have them provided. I spent time in a summer program in a medically fragile classroom where none of the children could take food orally- they all required feeding tubes. The lunch program was required to provide the same school lunches to them, so the teachers threw out several sandwiches every day. Everyone in the school, from Kindergarten to 8th grade, received the same lunch. By changing the policies that, "allow... students in poor schools to eat free meals without having to fill out applications," it will (if done properly) allow the children who need it to have access to free meals without spending money providing it for those who don't. Perhaps the money that's no longer being wasted can go towards preparing better quality meals, educating parents who do not have the skills to fill out the paperwork, or in lowering the taxes the parents pay in the first place.

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