WASHINGTON – The number of Maryland schoolchildren receiving free or reduced-price breakfasts at school jumped by 8,401 last year, even as the number of schools offering breakfasts fell, according to a report released Tuesday.
The annual report by the Food Research and Action Center said the number of Maryland children getting subsidized school breakfasts grew from 85,785 in the 1999-2000 school year to 94,186 in the 2000-2001 school year. It came as the number of schools serving such meals fell from 1,445 to 1,355.
The percentage of Maryland schools offering both a subsidized lunch and breakfast program was 15th-highest in the nation — a sharp drop from the previous year when Maryland ranked fourth.
The report said that, of state schools offering a free or reduced-price lunch program, the percentage that also offered a breakfast program fell from 98.2 percent in 1999-2000 to 89.9 percent last year.
Maryland State Department of Education officials declined to comment on the report, saying they had not had a chance to review it yet.
Officials with the Food Research and Action Center could not explain the disparity between the growth in children served and the drop in schools serving in Maryland, but praised the state for reaching more children.
“The important thing is the kids, not the number of schools,” said Jim Weill, president of the center. “The school number can be driven by unusual things like consolidation.”
But they said more could be done.
Lynn Parker, the center’s director of child nutrition programs and nutrition policy, said that the increase in low-income students eating school breakfast is “good news.” But she added that there is still room for improvement.
There were 23,000 more low-income children in the state who could have received a subsidized breakfast, she said. Had the state reached all of them, it could have received an additional $3.7 million in federal funding.
Nationally, school participation in the subsidized breakfast program has increased since last year. In 2000-2001, there were 73,058 schools offering both breakfast and lunch, up from 72,085 the year before, and the number of low- income children served grew by 68,320, to more than 15.2 million.
The report also said that 42.8 of students who eat a subsidized lunch also got free or reduced-price breakfast last year, the highest ratio ever.
“The good news is the number of children and schools participating are both up,” said Weill. “The bad news is that there are still millions of children who are not getting the day off to a good start.”
Parker said a good breakfast “makes a difference all day long,” for students.
Weill said that the nation’s schools passed up the opportunity to grab another $300 million in federal aid for breakfast programs by not reaching all qualified children.
The School Breakfast Program, authorized in 1975, reimburses schools for all or part of every meal, depending on the child’s financial ability.
Weill said that students often refrain from eating school breakfast because of the stigma that it is only for poor students. The solution would be making breakfast free for all, which he said could be done at a “modest cost.” Weill said the savings in paperwork alone, by making free breakfast universal, “would offset the school breakfast costs.”