Why Free School Meals for All Baltimore Kids Is Huge

I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who’s had students come to her in the middle of the day asking for a dollar or two, so they can buy something for lunch. Teachers in Baltimore won’t have to face that anymore.

Starting this week, every student in the Baltimore City Public Schools can receive free breakfasts and lunches, regardless of family income.

As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the federal government put in place a “Community Eligibility Provision” that makes entire schools nationwide eligible for free meals, as long as at least 40 percent of students come from low-income families.

Maryland schools are able to adopt the program under state legislation passed this year in the State General Assembly.

Hooray for Maryland!

“The cost will not be borne by schools or by the state of Maryland, but by the federal government, which will reimburse schools for this,” said Michael Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. More good news for the city of Baltimore.

Over 2,000 districts across the U.S. are now participating in the program, including another 22 in Maryland, but Baltimore City Public Schools is by far the largest district.

Eligible Students Don’t Always Claim Their Free Lunch

The Baltimore Sun reports that 84 percent of city students already qualify for free and reduced-priced meals as part of the National School Lunch Program, a program begun in 1946 to provide free or reduced-price meals if household income and family size meet federal guidelines.

But so often students are too embarrassed to ask for free lunch. There are other reasons too, why eligible kids may not be receiving the free meals: students who are homeless, so don’t have parents or guardians to fill out the required forms. Or kids may have parents who don’t speak English, or just don’t know that their children qualify for this free food.

Now none of that matters.

As we read of the cycle of poverty, underachievement and inequality in our public schools, it is reassuring to see that there are concrete ways of making a difference.

The Great Equalizer

As Democratic State Delegate Keith Haynes, chief sponsor of the legislation, said June 2, the law is the “great equalizer” for city students, closing one more gap that exists from socio-economic disparities.

“We know being able to eat at school is directly tied to better academic performance, better success and outcomes, and it lets students focus on getting through the day without having to be hungry,” he said. “We believe this is going to be tremendously successful for all the schools.”

Indeed, teachers know that hungry kids cannot learn, and numerous studies have shown the connections between nutrition and learning. And with childhood hunger on the increase, with one in five American children living off food stamps, this couldn’t come at a better time.

Providing free nutrition also means that attendance rates will probably increase.

Was This Woman Fired?

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Della Curry, a kitchen manager for the posh Cherry Creek School District was let go last week from her position. She explained on her Facebook page, “I was fired for giving food to children that did not have money. While I know that what I did was legally wrong, I do not feel bad about it and I would do it again in a heartbeat.” The school district has since issued a statement denying that this was the reason for Curry’s termination, but they couldn’t discuss the reasons for her termination.

By contrast, at the same time, the city of Baltimore is embracing the idea of free school meals for all students. For all these reasons, this decision is huge.

No public school student should have to go hungry.