The Philadelphia school district's unique program provides free food for all children in schools with a high percentage of low-income students, dispensing with the cumbersome forms parents must fill out elsewhere to qualify their kids for free meals.
Although federal officials recently threatened to kill this paperless model, other cities are looking to replicate it. Food service directors say it eliminates the costly bureaucracy that both deters needy families from applying for subsidized meals and stigmatizes those who do complete the forms.
"There are so many families that don't get access to the free meals that they would probably qualify for," said Katie Wilson, school nutrition director in Onalaska, Wis.
Legislation introduced in Congress last month could expand the "universal meals" approach to millions of students and help President Barack Obama fulfill his pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015, supporters say.
Universal meals mean better nutrition and a better educational experience for a greater percentage of low-income children, said Wilson, who is also president of School Nutrition Association.
"We have all the science that shows good nutrition helps kids succeed in the classroom," she said. "We need to look at it as part of the school day."
In other districts, most parents must fill out applications to determine whether their children qualify for free or low-cost meals.
But experts say many forms are never submitted due to language barriers, literacy issues, humiliation and other factors. Students who do return the paperwork can be embarrassed in cafeteria lines, where others can see how much -- if anything -- they pay for their food.
In Los Angeles public schools, some high school students "would rather not eat than be stigmatized," said food services director Dennis Barrett, who would welcome universal meals.
The Philadelphia model began in 1991, when less than a third of the district's 200,000 students were receiving free or low-cost meals despite statistics showing that 80 percent qualified, according to lawyer Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services.
With the help of Stein and others, the district lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- which oversees the federal school lunch program -- to automatically qualify entire school populations based on local socioeconomic data.
The pilot program has been consistently renewed but never expanded to other cities. Today, about 200 of Philadelphia's 270 schools serve universal meals; those that do not require applications, although some students are automatically enrolled through their family's participation in other welfare programs.
Universal meals are served in schools where at least 75 percent of the student body meets the low-income threshold. In most buildings, more than 85 percent of students qualify, said district chief business officer Michael Masch.
The government reimburses schools based on the percentage of eligible students. The school absorbs the costs of the remaining free meals, which Masch said evens out because of the money saved on administrative costs.
During a recent lunch period at Thurgood Marshall, the cafeteria served up meatball sandwiches, yogurt, oranges and milk.
Such meals are a huge help for Janet Hernandez, who has three children at the school. Hernandez, 35, said the program benefits students and especially working parents, who save time and money knowing their children will have a meal waiting for them at school.
"Sometimes we need that extra little help as far as food goes," said Hernandez, who volunteers at the school. "That's one less thing that we have to worry about as parents."
But during the waning months of the Bush administration, the Agriculture Department decided to end Philadelphia's 17-year pilot program in 2010. Continuing the model "would be inconsistent with the intent of the pilot authority," regional director James Harmon wrote to state education officials.
New Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has since pledged to continue the program until the expected reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act later this year. Its future beyond that remains in doubt, though bills introduced in Congress by Pennsylvania lawmakers aim to maintain and expand the program.
"It works in Philadelphia, it will work nationally, and it is time to build on this local success story," Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., said in a statement.
The New York public schools are interested in the Philadelphia model, said Eric Goldstein, a district administrator. With universal meals, the district would expect to provide nearly 7,700 extra meals on top of the 850,000 it already serves, he said.
In Los Angeles, Barrett said that about 78 percent of the 668,000 public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Only 39 percent participate for breakfast and 70 percent for lunch, he said.
He estimates that universal meals would boost participation by 40 percent and save about $4 million in processing costs.
"That's a lot of money that should be going to what's on the plate for kids," Barrett said.