While the legislature is considering several bills this session that would address the problem of child hunger in Maryland, it is in marked contrast to what leaders in at least one community are doing.
In a seven-part series on childhood hunger in Maryland, Maryland Matters used Anne Arundel County as an example of the problems the state is facing. While Anne Arundel County is one of the richest counties in the richest state in the nation, over the last decade the number of children eligible for a free school lunch in that county has jumped by 81%.
Despite the growing problem, the series found that the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) declined to use a federal program that would have fed more children, engaged in the practice of “lunch shaming” and paid some its employees so little that they were eligible for food stamps. As the series was being reported, school officials — except for Michelle Corkadel, the president of the Board of Education — declined to be interviewed.[Read the full series on childhood hunger.]
However, after the series appeared, Bob Mosier, the school system’s chief communications officer, reluctantly agreed to answer in writing to questions submitted by Maryland Matters. But, with the exception of one school board member who did agree to an interview, there was no indication that the administration planned to make any changes.
AACPS is one of 12 school districts in the state that have not enacted the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) that allows all children in schools with high poverty rates to receive a free lunch.
Mosier said it was not financially feasible to feed additional children.
“An analysis shows that implementing CEP at these schools would result in a loss of more than $241,600 to AACPS Food & Nutrition Services. In an operation funded almost exclusively by federal and state funding along with meal payments, such a loss could only be made up by significant meal price increases.” Mosier said.
Because Mosier would not answer questions about his statement, it is unclear why the school system could not ask for more funding from the county instead of raising prices. It is also unclear what is meant by “significant meal increases.” If the approximately 80,000 children in school system had to pay a nickel more for a meal, the shortfall could be paid for several times over.
Mosier also denied that the school practiced lunch shaming. Instead he called it “a protocol that addresses full paying students with negative meal balances.” However, Mosier did not dispute the fact that students whose parents are unwilling or unable to pay do not get a regular school lunch. Instead they are given an “alternate meal,” a practice known as lunch shaming.
Mosier said there are no plans to change this practice. “Anne Arundel County Public Schools has no plan to change the five meal allowance to charge meals while a student has a negative balance,” Mosier declared.
There was also little hope that the AACPS would pay its employees a living wage. The state’s food stamp database shows that 50 AACPS employees are currently receiving food stamps. In one school employees are allowed to use the school’s food pantry because they cannot afford enough food.
While Mosier noted that “the Board of Education requested and the County Council approved more than $48 million in employee compensation enhancements,” for the current year, it apparently did not reach the food stamp workers. They are using the school’s food pantry in the current year.
Mosier also said, “Superintendent Dr. George Arlotto has recommended another $34.4 million in compensation increases for employees in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget.” He did not say how this would affect the food stamp employees.
Although not part of his formal statement, Mosier also complained that the child hunger series maligned “our board president and at least from everybody that I’ve talked to that’s read the story made fun of her with the whole 11-minute monologue piece.”
When Corkadel, the school board president, was asked why AACPS can’t pay their workers a living wage,” Maryland Matters reported that she gave an 11-minute rambling monologue that didn’t seem to answer the question. Corkadel’s answer is printed verbatim in a sidebar.
While the AACPS statement held out little hope that the administration would make any changes, at least one school board member said the child hunger series and the school system’s role in it was “compelling and sad.”
“I had no idea what our policy was with regard to students and their ability or lack of being able to pay for access to lunch,” said Dana Schallheim, representing County Council District 5. “I had no idea.”
“I doubt there’s a written policy that specifically targets kids to shame them,” Schallheim said. “But if there is a policy that has some unintended consequences of making children feel bad about their inability to pay for lunch that makes me sad. It makes me want to delve into that with the administration and see what I can learn.”
Schallheim also said she was unaware that their were food stamp workers at AACPS and that she needs more information before saying what should be done. “I want to pay living wages to everyone,” Schallheim said. “Are they part-time? Are they full time? Do we have more information on that? Because then I can give you a better answer.”
However, Schallheim said that although she was familiar with the problems of CEP, she was not optimistic that anything would change.
Elliot Jaspin, the author of our original series on childhood hunger in Maryland, is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who has worked for over 40 years at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maine, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. He has also taught journalism at the University of Missouri and the University of Maryland.
Jaspin founded the National Institute for Computer Assisted Report and was honored for his computer work by the National Press Foundation in 1994. In addition, he is the author of “Buried In The Bitter Waters: The Hidden History Of Racial Cleansing In America.” He lives in Annapolis and can be reached at [email protected]