WASHINGTON — Some Baltimore City students don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, and that started this school year.
The best part is, students don’t need to fill out the forms that officials suspect keep many from seeing the benefits. According to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), all schools in Baltimore City qualify — meaning every student in every school in Baltimore City has access to free breakfasts and lunches.
This school year brought a change to the school system that has already improved the lives of many students. If 40 percent of students in a single school qualify for the free and reduced-price meals program because of low family income, the entire school qualifies for free breakfasts and lunches, thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision funded by the federal government’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2015.
According to state education officials, over 84 percent of students in Baltimore City schools qualified for free and reduced-price meals (FARMS) in the past two years. In comparison, Loudoun County, Va., which has topped the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of richest counties, has just over 17 percent of students that are eligible. Nearby Montgomery County in Maryland has about 32 percent of students qualifying for free or lower-cost meals.
From 2009 to 2013, the median household income in Baltimore City was $41,385, according to data from the Census Bureau. In comparison, the median household income of Loudoun County was almost three times higher at $122,238. During the same period of time, the median home value of Baltimore City was $157,900 and that of Loudoun County was, again, almost three times higher at $437,700.
Other Maryland school systems taking part in the free meal program are Somerset County schools, most Washington County schools and one Howard County school.
Somerset County Public Schools Superintendent John Gaddis said that adopting the provision has been very productive in his schools. The county was the first in Maryland to provide free meals for all, and Gaddis said last year they served 105,000 more meals than the previous year.
“The best thing I’ve done as superintendent was to enroll our system in this program,” Gaddis said. “It has changed things dramatically in our schools and in our community; the fact that we know all our kids are being fed at least two meals a day is huge for us. We’re in a very poor district but we’re a proud district and we work hard.”
The Community Eligibility Provision supports 23 schools in Maryland taking part in this program beyond all of the Baltimore City schools, giving more than 7,500 students access to free meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services.
The new program allows students that normally wouldn’t eat at school, either because they’re embarrassed to eat the free meals or because they aren’t in school, to have meals available to them daily. With about 85,000 students in Baltimore City public schools, this is very important, both on a nutrition level and an education level.
“We’re served around 5,000 more meals every day this school year compared to last year,” said Elizabeth Marchetta, director of food and nutrition for Baltimore City Public Schools.
Not only are they focusing on eradicating hunger from their classrooms, officials want to ensure that students are eating nutritious foods. According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), low-income families often don’t have the same access to fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, for several reasons.
“Vehicle access is perhaps the most important determinant of whether or not a family can access affordable and nutritious food,” according to the USDA, and low-income families are less likely to have access to a vehicle.
Even if a low-income family does have access to a grocery store that supplies healthy, fresh foods, healthy food in general tends to be more expensive when you take into consideration how quickly it goes to waste and how much is required to completely fill a child’s stomach. Based on that, low-income families are more vulnerable to obesity, according to FRAC.
“In a city like Baltimore where we don’t have a lot of fresh options available to a lot of our students, we offer free, unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables,” Marchetta said, “so it’s a really powerful thing to say that no matter what school you go to in Baltimore City, you can have as much fresh [fruits and vegetables] as you want for free.”
Students that would qualify for free or reduced meals often don’t simply because they can’t get the paperwork in for one reason or another, said Baltimore City Del. Keith Haynes.
Sometimes the parents or guardians can’t or don’t fill out the required paperwork, or sometimes the students don’t have anyone to fill it out for them. Or, if they do get everything signed and turned in, they choose not to get the meals because of the stigma attached to the free meals.
This new program equalizes all students, allowing the students that fall through the cracks to get the nutrition they need. Filling all students’ stomachs isn’t the only benefit, said Haynes, who supported the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2015, the law that allows the Community Eligibility Provision to benefit Baltimore City.
“I actually have gone to a couple of schools and you just see a total difference in a child; their whole outcome, demeanor, attitude is different when they’re receiving full, balanced nutritional meals and that carries over into their academic performance in the classroom,” Haynes said.
“It’s a direct correlation in which we (pretty much) all can relate to,” he added. “I perform better at my job when I’m not hungry … so the same thing is very true when we look at our students and (their education).”
The program is financially responsible for school systems as well, said Michael Wilson, the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a non-profit organization that lobbied for the legislation to pass under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2015 because of the many benefits it offered.
Previously, when schools offered free and reduced-price meals to select students that qualified, the local government paid for the meals.
By contrast, when the schools participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, the state government funds the meals.
“If you’re Baltimore City and you can use Community Eligibility, you can focus on other things instead of collecting meal applications,” Wilson said.
Summer meals are offered as part of another provision of the bill. This program allows low-income students to continue getting meals over the summer.
“Summer meals are done because we’ve seen the evidence where kids who get breakfast and lunch throughout the school year no longer get that in summer … there’s a summer learning gap, (and a) summer hunger gap,” Wilson said.
Rather than have schools sort through students to try to find those that would qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and then try to get students to return the forms fully filled out, it’s better for the students and the school system to serve them all the same, he said.
The program “was meant to ensure that high-poverty schools were able to feed their students in a more efficient way,” he said.
Wilson said Maryland Hunger Solutions is currently encouraging other school systems to take take part in the program to better serve their students.