WASHINGTON – Despite a drop in the number of low-income students who received free and reduced-price breakfasts last year in Maryland, the state still won praise Thursday for a program that advocates said the rest of the nation should follow.
The number of students getting school breakfasts fell from 100,714 in the 2001-2002 school year to 93,096 in the last school year, the second-sharpest decline in the nation, according to a report released Thursday by the Food Research and Action Center.
But the report also singled out the Maryland Meals for Achievement program, which has provided free breakfast to all students in schools where at least 40 percent of the student body are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast.
“Although it had one of the biggest drops, Maryland is still one of the better states,” said Nicole Woo, a senior policy analyst at the center.
Officials at the state Department of Education also said they were not concerned by last year’s drop in school breakfasts, which they attributed to high number of delayed school openings because of the harsh winter weather.
Schools in Carroll County, for instance, had seven delayed openings last year, down from just one delayed opening the year before, said Kim Kerry, community outreach specialist for the state Education Department.
The report criticized states like Wisconsin, New Jersey and Utah for not providing more access to the School Breakfast Program. It said children who eat breakfast perform better academically at school, have fewer behavioral problems and are less likely to be obese.
Nationally, enrollment in the breakfast program doubled from 3.4 million low-income students in 1990 to 6.8 million in 2003 — but that is still far below the nearly 16 million kids that got a free or reduced-price lunch at school in 2003, according to the report.
“The unfortunate thing is that somehow the breakfast program has been viewed as a poor kids’ program,” Kerry said. “We’re trying hard to counter that. That’s one of the things we need to work on.”
One way education officials have tried to end the stigma of the breakfast program is to offer a meal to everyone, regardless of income. That’s the idea behind the Maryland Meals for Achievement program.
Under the program, breakfasts are delivered to the classroom every morning in low-income schools. The breakfasts — which can include cereal or sausage biscuits, milk and juice — are available to all children in the school.
Southlake Elementary School Principal Catherine Allie said her Gaithersburg school participated in the breakfast program since its inception. She has noticed that students are more focused and that fewer children have been sent to her with behavioral problems.
“They’re tanked up,” Allie said. “It levels the playground for all children to start off with a full stomach.”
Still, Maryland Meals for Achievement reaches only 47,000 of the 860,000 students in the state public school system and there are no plans to expand the program with the current budget woes, Kerry said.
“We would certainly like to expand the programs to all schools that would like to participate but we’re feeling fortunate that we’re able to maintain our situation,” she said.