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District urged to get more to participate in meal program

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Increasing student meal participation, especially at breakfast, was an addition to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s school reform plan after pressure from Community Legal Services, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and other groups that have long made this a priority.

Activists are still pushing the District to include meal participation rates on new school report cards that will be used to judge the performance of schools and principals.

In March, state documents obtained by The Inquirer and the Notebook revealed that schools vary widely in breakfast participation. Meanwhile, principals were making sure that students ate school breakfasts during test taking, but not always at other times.

“We’re trying to get principal and local school accountability for enrollment of eligible children at breakfast and lunch,” said Jonathan Stein of the Community Legal Services. “We want to see more substantial enrollments in the breakfast program especially.”

Now, only one of three eligible children are served breakfast in school, Stein said.

Activists are also working with local members of Congress to preserve so-called “universal feeding,” in which all students at a school automatically get free meals because the overall poverty level in its neighborhood is so high. Providing meals to all students in a school is generally cheaper than making families fill out paperwork to qualify.

The Bush-era Department of Agriculture threatened to end this program, which is unique to Philadelphia, and the Obama administration has not yet taken a position on this issue, Stein said.

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