ANNAPOLIS Documented links between good nutrition and learning have fueled support to expand a successful in- classroom breakfast pilot program in Maryland.
About 20 people Wednesday backed legislation to give Maryland school children a nutritious breakfast. National studies show that of 50 million school children in the United States, only 7 million actually eat breakfast before starting the school day.
“The body is an engine and if it doesn’t have fuel it can’t perform,” said Delegate Henry Heller, D-Montgomery.
Heller was among the supporters who testified to the House Ways and Means Committee on behalf of the bill introduced by Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, that would extend a three-year pilot program providing in-classroom breakfasts to elementary school students from five counties to any qualifying public or private school in Maryland. Schools can qualify for the pilot program, called the Maryland Meals for Achievement, if 40 percent of their students are eligible for free and reduced school meals.
The bill also would provide an income tax credit of up to $25,000 for businesses that contribute to schools that sponsor the program.
While the program targets low-income children and students who don’t eat breakfast before school starts, all students would be offered the breakfast in the classroom during their homeroom period, regardless of family income.
Only 27 percent of students eligible for free meals and 11 percent of students eligible for reduced-price meals take advantage of breakfast when it’s offered before school. Laura A. Howell, a lobbyist for the Center for Poverty Solutions, said low participation rates may be due to the stigma of being classified as poor.
Another problem is that children don’t have enough time in the morning to eat breakfast or eat it so early that by the time they get to school they are hungry, Howell added.
By providing breakfast to all students, Howell added, stigmas are erased and all children can have a nutritious breakfast, which usually consists of cereal, a bagel or pastry, juice and milk. The Center for Poverty Solutions is asking the state for $5 million, which would feed 66,000 children.
Hixson, a former Head Start teacher in Michigan, said the legislation is necessary to make sure children are nourished and healthy, which she feels translates into better behavior, attention and academic performance.
The program modeled after the national Meals for Achievement Program evaluates what effect breakfast has on attendance, tardiness, behavior, social skills and academic performance.
In September, The Maryland Department of Education began the Maryland Meals for Achievement Pilot in five counties: Baltimore, Montgomery, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and Washington, according to Sandy Shepherd, a school and community outreach spokeswoman for the department.
Research by the Harvard University Medical School shows that since the Maryland Meals for Achievement Program began, the school breakfast participation rate has tripled, attention and behavior have increased and the number of disciplinary suspensions, absences and tardy students have decreased significantly. So have complaints of hunger and tiredness.
South Lake Elementary Principal Catherine Allie supplied the committee with first-hand information about the in-classroom program at her school.
“What we used to get was a lot of heads down on the desk and a pretty drowsy kind of attitude. Now everyone is sitting up straight with heads up and are on task for learning,” she said. “It’s a terrific program.”
The school serves about 460 breakfasts out of 560 total students. Before, cafeteria workers served about 123 breakfasts.