Since the beginning of June, every student in the city of Baltimore, regardless of income level, is being offered a free breakfast and lunch every school day under a federal program that allows school districts to eliminate a decades-old meal-subsidy structure for students in schools where poverty is common.
Baltimore is one among a handful of districts in the state of Maryland taking advantage of legislation passed this year in the Maryland General Assembly.
Keith Haynes (D), chief sponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday during an announcement at Beechfield Elementary/Middle School that the law should be seen as a “great equalizer” among city students, closing one more gap that exists between different socio-economic groups.
“We know that nutritious, balanced meals has a direct correlation to positive outcomes for our students,” said Haynes. “And we know not everyone has access to that.”
In Baltimore, 84% of students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals this year based on family income under the National School Lunch Program. About 13,000 paid $3 for lunch this year; the district dropped its reduced-priced meals in 2013 and paid the subsidy for those students to eat for free.
Haynes points out that not only does the option, called “community eligibility,” eliminates a social stigma that students can feel if they qualify for free lunch, but it also eliminates barriers for students, such as those who are homeless and can’t get paperwork in, who never have the chance to qualify.
“We have some students who, if they don’t get it at school, they don’t get it at all,” Haynes said.
The city joins Somerset and Washington counties, which are participating in the program, along with one school in Howard County.
Principal Renee Browning said she has seen her middle-school students sharing their lunches with one another when students can’t afford to pay. The school offers students other options, including PB&J sandwiches, but that’s not a meal that kids today get very excited about.
Browning said the stakes of an empty stomach are even higher as city students enter an era of more rigorous lessons. Research shows hungry students are at a disadvantage in the classroom, and we all know that with the brain eating 30% of our calories: starving it only results in a decreased functionality. Free school lunches should help students from low-income families achieve a higher position in society, without being kept back from achievement due to hunger.
“This means from Day 1 to Day 180, every child will have a free school lunch and they will be focused on their academics,” Browning said.
According to the Baltimore Sun, sixth-grader Katia Stanford said of the change: “I think it’s good, and kind of crazy because kids should have been getting free lunch from the beginning if they knew kids was hungry,” she said.
The city was criticized for not deciding on the program 2 years ago when it raised lunch prices to $3, shockingly among the highest in the entire nation. School system officials said then that the city could have lost some state funding if it took part in the program without state legislation.
Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said “This is exactly what the program was meant to do.”
Wilson said Baltimore City is a prime example of a mixed and low-income community that the law is hoping to help. Schools and school districts where at least 40 percent of the population is considered low-income can participate.
Wilson’s organization estimates that the district would have received over $4 million more in federal funding had it implemented the program sooner.
In the past, the city has received federal funding based on the number of applications for free and reduced-price meals that were returned from families of low-income students. But under the new structure, the system will be reimbursed based on the number of meals it serves. In other districts that have opted into the community eligibility option, the number of meals served has skyrocketed.
School officials said they don’t anticipate any negative financial impact from opting into the program. So far, it really seems to be a positive change for everyone involved.
David T. Clements, a single parent with two children in Baltimore schools, said he plans to put the $30 a week he was paying for his children’s lunches toward their college funds.
“Given the socio-economic status of the city, it’s a no-brainer,” Clements said of the program. “Parents can now take that money and apply it to their futures.”