Something rotten in Philly

By Michelle Chen May 30, 2009

Remember school lunch? The shoe-leather hamburgers, bruised fruit and cardboard pizza? The federal government thinks it might just be too good for thousands of kids in Philadelphia. Yes, many children could soon be deprived of this hallmark of American cuisine, as the US Department of Agriculture moves to eliminate a program providing universal free meals to more than 120,000 children in Philadelphia schools. The popular program, targeted to students at high-poverty schools, is unique in that it does not require families to go through a tedious application process. Advocates say the paperwork burden, language barriers and stigma prevent otherwise eligible children from accessing breakfast and lunch services. One main concern seems to be that kids who aren’t sufficiently poor could be eating too much free food. The USDA wants to replace the “universal feeding” program with a more draconian system, which has been criticized for imposing burdensome requirements on school administrations to verify families’ income eligibility. An analysis of USDA data by the Food Research and Action Council shows that nationwide, nutrition programs for families are failing to keep pace with rising food prices and intensifying hunger. Food insecurity hits poor, Black, Latino and single-mother households the hardest. And not surprisingly, national surveys of school lunch programs show that children from those backgrounds have higher eligibility rates for free meals. The politics of school food go back a long way: it began as a breakthrough Depression Era welfare initiative and then evolved into a bureaucracy dominated by the agricultural industry. During the segregation era, school food programs reflected and deepened structural poverty and racism. In a review of School Lunch Politics, Eliza Krigman of the Brookings Institution notes vast disparities between white and Black children’s access to school lunches during the 1960s, and the stigma still hovering over cafeterias that segregate students by lunch status (recently documented in San Francisco schools). That’s not to imply, of course, that there are sinister intents behind the decision to cut a progressive lunch program in an city where more than 30 percent of Black and Latino children live in poverty. But given the unsavory tendency of nutrition programs to let the neediest go hungry, it does sort of leave a bad taste in your mouth. Image: