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Maryland Leaders Ask for More Money for Free School Breakfast

Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin led a group of state lawmakers to increase funding for a school breakfast program.

Nearly every student at Roscoe Nix Elementary in Silver Spring eats a free and nutritionally balanced breakfast.  Teachers serve hot meals in the classroom before the first bell instead of the usual busy cafeteria.

It's an unconventional approach to feeding students, but one that lawmakers from Montgomery County hope will become the norm in more schools.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) joined students and members of the Maryland General Assembly Wednesday to tout the success of the Maryland Meals for Achievement program at schools like Roscoe Nix. She penned a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley and State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery that calls for an additional $1.8 million in funding to put the program in 130 additional schools throughout the state.

Advocates of free meal programs say access to food may increase student achievement. Ervin, joined by state delegates and senators from both Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said that increasing poverty in the suburbs makes the programs more necessary now.

"Providing nutritious meals is one of the most immediate and cost-effective ways to improve a child's health and performance in the classroom," said Ervin.

The breakfast program reimburses eligible schools for the money spent on providing universal breakfast, according to Anne Sheridan, Maryland director of the "No Kid Hungry Campaign" at nonprofit Share Our Strength. To be eligible, schools must have a certain percentage of their students qualify for reduced or free meals. 

More than 47,000 children in Montgomery County are eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMS), an increase of more than 25 percent, according to a statement from the Ervin. Under the current funding level for the program, only 40 schools in the county are working with the program, although 80 are eligible.  

In Prince George's County, where 70,000 students live below the federal poverty line, 27 schools are part of the program this school year, although more than 150 would be eligible. 

If approved, the additional $1.8 million would go toward fully funding the program over the next five years. Ervin also hopes to lower the criteria for schools to become eligible, something that Montgomery County Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay said is a problem when a hungry child attends a school that doesn't meet the standards for funding.

"If there's a child hungry at any classroom in our state, we need to make sure that they have breakfast," said Barclay.

At Roscoe Nix, where 68 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced meals, school principal Annette Ffolkes said that tardiness has plummeted in the four years that her students have been offered breakfast in the classroom. Students are eager to get to class in time to eat, she said. Teachers also report that students are more attentive.

Ffolkes said that there's an additional peace of mind to the breakfast as well.

"The concern that we have that many of our students, the meals that they have here in school may be the only meals that they have during the day," she said. "So we want to make sure that they at least have something to start the day with."

Stuart December 20, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Craig, take a break from your keyboard and get involved in your school community and you will get a first hand answer to your question. You will learn that sometimes there is only one or two meals a day. Or that if it is a snow day, there is no lunch. Or that the main care giver is a non-adult older sibling (with parent(s) working multiple low-paying jobs). Or that kids don't have suitable winter clothes. Etc... One great way to battle poverty is through education. And ensuring that the kids in our neighborhood can have some food to start the day seems to me a good way to help give kids living in poverty a fighting chance. I am very appreciative of Valerie Ervin's efforts, getting a pilot program established a few years back and now, working to grow this. Yes, poverty is disturbing. And here in Montgomery County, it tends to hide in the shadows of our wealth. So peek into those shadows and then you can make a better educated judgement about the relative value of feeding some of our kids with some of our tax dollars.
Craig December 20, 2012 at 05:03 AM
Stuart, I'll take a break from the keyboard when you and politicians like Valerie Ervin take a break from sucking working folks dry. And when you get off the liberal soapbox and start thinking of new solutions to problems instead of throwing more borrowed money at them. Poverty sucks. It absolutely, positively MUST be eliminated. Breakfast is essential... nobody disputes this. What I dispute is that MoCo, MD needs to provide free lunch to 80K students at the cost of about $60 per child per year. What if we took that $1.8 million dollars, set-up workshops at the some 150 "qualified schools" (thats an astounding $12K per school) and did administrator-parent-child workshops once or twice a year? What then? Could we maybe teach parents and youngsters alike how to have a meal and make it for themselves, on a budget, instead of funding yet another program in perpetuity? We need to solve problems and go to the root of this stuff. We DO NOT need to spend more money. Again, it is tax... spend... repeat. Sorry, I don't buy it. We can do better for the poor or underserved by teaching, not handing out. Two different things.
jag December 20, 2012 at 05:34 AM
"So parents aren't able to provide THAT in one of the richest counties in the USA?" Yes, I agree, it's only a tiny amount of money to spend for the most worthwhile of causes and those of us who are wealthy can certainly afford to pay for it since, as you say, we're one of the richest counties in the country. You win - I'm sold. Very high return for a very small expenditure (what, 30 cents a meal, per your numbers?).
Fred Foo December 21, 2012 at 12:47 AM
With all respect to Craig and Stuart who present opposite views that are both equally valid, let's suppose that tax revenues are flat and that we must balance our budget (I know, an alien concept in the US), given the belief in the success of the free meal program, from where in the educational budget should we cut funding to pay for the free meal program?
Craig December 22, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Have they means-tested this? HOW DO WE KNOW that there are 80K children in MoCo without the ability to get / afford a quality breakfast? I guarantee, positively guarantee that if you took a sampling of the children, some would be wearing $60-$100 shoes from Footlocker, or they would have cell phones. Does a child with multiple $60-$100 shoes need a free breakfast? Their parents can't purchase breakfast for them? This is why holding a workshop that includes parents would be oh-so-much better and money well spent (one time). If a family is absolutely, positively stretched to the breaking point then I don't think ANYONE, conservative or liberal, has a problem with local government stepping in. What I do have a problem with is the suggestion that 80K MORE kids need free breakfasts without really studying the underlying problem of why they don't get breakfast. Oh, and Moco? How about pushing back highschool so HIGH SCHOOL children can get them some breakfast instead of rushing to a bus stop at 6:20 am?

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