School District of Philadelphia

Can Philly Feed All Its Hungry Students This Fall? Feds Aren't Helping, Mayor Says

Policy changes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture are complicating Philly's plans to distribute meals to students this fall.

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Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the School District of Philadelphia has provided more than 5 million meals to hungry students.

But because of a policy change in the federal government, some city students may not receive meals they depend on, officials said Thursday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for meals given to hungry students. This spring, as the pandemic spread across the country, the department waived many of the eligibility requirements linked to the meals. This allowed district sites to provide food for all city children or parents who showed up at "grab and go" distribution centers, without needing to check where a student is enrolled or if they meet other requirements.

But that USDA waiver has not been re-issued, and is leading to restrictions for families who may rely on these meal programs. Starting Sept. 3, the school district:

  • will only be able to provide meals to district students - meaning some charter students will not be eligible
  • someone collecting meals for their child will have to present the child's student ID or ID number
  • is opening more meal sites in response to the changing rules.
  • meals will be distributed at the sites every Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon.

The total number of meal distribution sites has grown to 62, Superintendent William Hite said Thursday. Two locations - Abraham Lincoln High School and Horace Furness High School - have stopped serving meals to allow for construction projects.

Grab and go meals are also available at five charter schools that contract with the district for food services:

  • Kipp West PHL Preparatory Charter,
  • Philadelphia Electric and Tech Charter,
  • Math Civic and Science Charter, Prep Charter School of Math, Science Tech and Careers,
  • and Multi Cultural Academy Charter

"We are now only permitted to provide meals to district students because the USDA has refused to extend a waiver to the National School Lunch Program," Hite said.

In a city press conference Wednesday, Mayor Jim Kenney said leaders will "do our best" to make sure no one is turned away from a meal because of the rule changes.

“The prior iteration of the program, people were allowed to pick up for a number of kids in the house, they were allowed to pick up for a neighbor, that’s all gone,” Kenney said.

The city has several sites where families can pick up food. A map of all those pickup sites is at The district information on the food sites is linked here.

"We’re going to continue to lobby them, the USDA," Kenney said. "It’s a bipartisan issue, both sides are - no one argues with it, that the waiver should be extended. It’s just one of those things that this government does to make life harder.”

A USDA spokesperson said in a statement that the department has made other rule changes that allow districts to be flexible. Those changes include allowing bus routes to be used for meal delivery, allowing curbside pickup and sending children home with multiple meals at once.

Other press statements attributed to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue mention a lack of funding needed to continue paying for the meals into the next school year.

A school district spokesperson said 95 percent of the student population - about 130,000 students - qualifies for free or reduced lunch.

Backpack giveaway

The district will host a backpack giveaway Friday, Aug. 28, in Lot K outside Lincoln Financial Field, Hite said. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., families of preK - 12th grade students can drive through the parking lot can receive one backpack of school supplies for each child in their home.

No children can be present, and each adult can receive a maximum of two bags. No walkups are permitted. Carpooling is OK.

Shop Rite and Converse are among the sponsors of the event. The district expects to distribute about 6,000 backpacks.

Two other backpack giveaway events at Shop Rite stores were fully booked, Hite said.

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