Report: School Meals Programs in Md. Aren’t Reaching Enough Eligible Kids

Photo from Carroll County Public Schools.

Some low-income children in Maryland who are eligible for free school breakfasts have not been receiving them, according to a report that the group Maryland Hunger Solutions released Wednesday.

The report found that in the 2018-2019 school year, 62 low-income Maryland students ate school breakfast for every 100 who ate school lunch, which is lower than the national goal, set by Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), of reaching 70 low-income children in the national School Breakfast Program for every 100 who get school lunch.

Only half of Maryland’s 24 school districts met the national goal, with Baltimore City and Calvert County performing the worst.

Baltimore City has 155 schools eligible for Maryland Meals for Achievement, which provides state funding alongside federal meal reimbursements so that schools in high-poverty areas can offer breakfast in classrooms to all students for free — but zero schools in the city participated in the state program last year. Forty-four low-income students in Baltimore City ate school breakfast for every 100 who ate school lunch, according to the report.

The problem could be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with most schools in the state still shuttered, anti-hunger advocates maintain.

“We know that, due to COVID-19, school systems are using delivery models that don’t compare to in-person learning models. We also know that COVID-19 has led to dramatically increasing childhood hunger in the state and across the country, causing schools to redouble their efforts now, and when they re-open to reach more low-income children with school breakfast,” Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said in a statement.

Free school breakfasts help reduce food insecurity and have been linked to better test performance and fewer absentees, according to the report. Schools that participate in the national School Breakfast Program receive federal funds for school meals. In addition, the Community Eligibility Provision allows schools in high-poverty areas, or schools with 40% or more children eligible for free school meals, to offer free breakfast and lunch to all of its students using federal funds.

Kent County was the most engaged school district when it came to utilizing school breakfast programs, providing 98.6% of its low-income students with free school breakfast for every 100 who received in school lunch.

If all Maryland schools had met the national goal of reaching 70 low-income children with school breakfast for every 100 participating in school lunches, the state would have received an additional $4,775,145 in federal reimbursements to feed 23,773 more students, according to the report.

One barrier to school breakfast participation is the timing of when breakfast is offered. For instance, the cafeteria may close once the school day begins, so students who arrive late miss the chance to get school breakfast. Another impediment is the negative stigma of free school meals.

The report recommends that schools offer breakfast after the first bell rings and allow students to eat in classrooms, so that students who arrive late to school still have time to eat breakfast. The report also encourages eligible schools to participate in Maryland Meals for Achievement and community eligibility, which both allow schools in high-poverty areas to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students.

This would reduce the negative stigma around free school meals, anti-hunger advocates argue. If more students receive free meals, regardless of their family income, the negative stigma will dissipate, the report says.

“Hungry children cannot be expected to fully engage in their learning if they are distracted by the rumbling and discomfort in their empty bellies,” Cheryl Bost, the president of Maryland State Education Association, said in a statement. “By ensuring that children have access to healthy and nutritious breakfast at school, we are making a significant investment in our state’s most precious resource.”

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Elizabeth Shwe
Shwe covered California state politics during her internship at The Sacramento Bee. She is a 2020 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in political science. At Princeton she was a producer for WPRB 103.3 FM News & Culture section, the station’s only long form podcast-type program. Shwe also wrote for The Daily Princetonian, and tutored with the Petey Greene Program, which offers free tutoring to incarcerated people. Shwe is a Report for America corps member.