Philadelphia's Universal Feeding Pilot

How will the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act affect this successful program? 

In 1991, the School District of Philadelphia, in coordination with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), developed its Universal Feeding Program to streamline the counting and claiming meals served to low-income children through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

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In short, the Universal Feeding Program uses a socioeconomic study to determine the percentage of children in each school eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. If a high percentage of children in a particular school qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, the entire school receives “universal service” (i.e. free meals for all students). 

By doing this, low-income families do not need to submit a separate meal application for their children to qualify for free meals. Additionally, the School District does not have to make an individual determination of eligibility for each family. This method eliminates cumbersome paperwork for administrators and parents and ensures that every child is able to receive meals at no cost.

In 2006-2007, the School District invested $550,000 to conduct a new socioeconomic study, carried out by The Reinvestment Fund, in order to establish updated eligibility percentages for free and reduced-price meals for the 2007-08 school year. The USDA agreed to allow the District to use this data to determine eligibility through the 2009-10 school year. Read the full report from The Reinvestment Fund (PDF).

By all accounts, the School District’s Universal Feeding Program has been extremely successful in reaching its goals to: (1) reduce the administrative cost of managing individual meal applications, (2) increase access to school meals in low-income communities, and (3) increase participation in school meals, especially in high schools, by providing universal service and reducing the stigma associated with free school meals.

As part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization 2010, advocates and legislators have worked hard to make permanent Philadelphia’s Universal Feeding Model, as well as to extend this “survey option” to other large urban school districts.  Thanks to the hard work of Pennsylvania's delegation, a provision to continue universal feeding was included in the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act" that Congress passed in December 2010.

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