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.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.
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she had with the program's statistical underpinnings, which she condemned as "no longer accurate" and "completely out of date."
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