No Md. Schoolchild Should Go Hungry

Op-Ed: The Hunger Free Schools Act of 2015 is up for reauthorization. Will lawmakers do the right thing?

By: Jonathon Rondeau, Michael J. Wilson and David Sloan

As state lawmakers search in earnest for bipartisan ground, hopefully everyone can agree that no child attending school in Maryland should go hungry. In 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law a bill with unanimous legislative support that goes a long way toward addressing childhood hunger. The Hunger Free Schools Act of 2015 authorized the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides all students in eligible participating schools with free breakfast and lunch, every school day. The law is up for reauthorization this year — and we urge lawmakers to once again show their support for an option that truly makes a difference in the academic, social and emotional welfare of our children.

There's no question that the CEP works. In the 2015-2016 school year, 227 Maryland schools participated in it, and as a result, more than 97,000 students attended a hunger-free school. In Baltimore alone, since adopting the CEP, city schools are serving more than 10,000 additional school lunches every day, despite an overall reduction in student enrollment between school years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. Put another way: Before the CEP, 58 percent of city schools students participated in school lunch; after the CEP, 71 percent of all students participated. Gains have also been made in rural counties, where the CEP is meeting the needs of diverse student populations. From Garrett and Washington counties in Western Maryland, to Wicomico and Somerset on the bay, we're seeing more schools take advantage of this program.

For all the gains made in reducing hunger in Maryland, there is still room to help even more children. More than 160 additional schools in Maryland are eligible to adopt the CEP, including the entire school districts of Allegany, Dorchester, Kent and Wicomico counties. Therefore, we urge the Maryland Senate to support SB361, the Hunger-Free Schools Act of 2017, to extend the CEP through 2022. The House is considering an identical proposal.

Doing so would keep Maryland in the forefront among states battling childhood hunger on multiple fronts. The state already has scored wins with the Maryland Meals for Achievement Program — a trend-setting school breakfast program that lets kids eat in class and get a nutritious jump-start each day. Our strong network of farms growing local produce has made it possible for us to become the first state in the nation where every public school system participates in the Homegrown School Lunch Program. Let's keep the momentum going by preserving — and extending — the gains offered through the CEP, which helps to ensure that children can count on nutritious meals that prepare them to learn, grow and succeed in school.

It's worth noting that all these extra meals don't cost Maryland taxpayers a dime of state money. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses participating schools for their outlays. For Baltimore alone, this meant an additional $9.6 million in federal reimbursements in the 2015-16 school year. And whereas schools have traditionally been required to gather complex income verification forms from parents or guardians as a condition of qualifying for free meals, under the CEP, the administrative burden is lifted substantially. The federal government reimburses schools based on the number of students that are homeless, migrant, in the foster care system, in Head Start or living in households participating in federal nutrition and/or cash assistance programs.

And what about the students themselves? There is ample research to show that students who eat breakfast at school make fewer mistakes, work faster in math and vocabulary, show improved concentration and comprehension, and have better attendance, among other gains. Students appreciate the program because they no longer need to carry lunch money, don't face the embarrassment of being turned away in the school lunch line for lack of funds, and the stigma once associated with being known as someone who eats for free, or at a reduced price, is gone, because the same food is available free to everyone. Removing such barriers means more kids are likely to obtain the nutrients and energy they need to concentrate on their studies.

Jonathon Rondeau is president and CEO of the Family League of Baltimore; Michael J. Wilson is director of Maryland Hunger Solutions; And David Sloan is director of Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry Maryland;