Nearly 400,000 Maryland students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, about 45 percent of all students. Now schools across the state are trying to expand programs that connect those students with free breakfasts as well.
The lunch program has been providing low income students with free or reduced price lunches since Harry Truman was president. But what’s less well known is that Maryland and other states offer free breakfasts for those students as well. Michael J. Wilson, Director of Maryland Hunger Solutions says, "Kids who haven’t had breakfast aren’t as good students."
Students who eat breakfast do better throughout the school day, but providing that first meal in a way that's accessible, especially for poor students, can be a challenge. Wilson adds: "So the problem is that they only have breakfast in the cafeteria before the bell rings so there’s the stigma that only poor kids are coming and eating that breakfast. And you if you miss the bus, or your parents don’t get you there, you got a long walk and you miss it, then you don’t have access to breakfast."
Yet in the last school year 18,000 more Maryland children got free or reduced price breakfast at their schools than the year before - that’s around 10 percent more low income students. Part of that growth is because schools are adding breakfast options in the morning. At Bryant Woods Elementary School in Howard County, Lucy Aranguren’s 3rd graders sit at their desks munching on cereal and drinking apple juice as they listen to the morning announcements. Howard County has one of the highest median incomes in the nation, though Bryant Woods Elementary is a Title One school, meaning it has a high concentration of poor families and receives additional federal funding. As the students get ready for first period, they share their thoughts on breakfast in the classroom.
More students are also participating in free meals at Bryant Woods because of a federally funded program called the Community Eligibility Provision. Wilson says the program reduces administrative costs because schools don’t have to print, collect, process and verify school meal applications. "If you have high percentages of kids who get free and reduced meals," he says, "the entire school or a group of schools or the entire school district is eligible."
He says it’s simply more efficient to feed everyone at a high-poverty school. So in Baltimore City, for example, where 85% of the kids are eligible for free and reduced meals, rather than have every student in the school fill out an application, everyone eats for free. Bryant Woods Elementary is one of two schools in Howard County that’s using the program, which according to Brian Ralph, the school system’s Food and Nutrition director means "there’s no overt identification when you come to the line in terms of having free meals."
The County also has a new point of sale system for every school. Ralph says, "A student can just punch their number in and the system identifies their eligibility. No one will know if the kid is paying, free or reduced."
Despite the Community Eligibility provision and expanded breakfast options, only 65 percent Maryland students who ate free or reduced price lunches last year also participated in the breakfast program. In counties like Calvert, Allegheny and Dorchester, advocates are working to expand morning meal options. But at this school teachers know their students are getting the most important meal of the day.