In Baltimore Schools, Free Meals for All

Erica L. Green, Baltimore Sun, June 2, 2015

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Beginning this week, every student in the city, regardless of income level, is being offered free breakfast and lunch under a federal program that allows school districts to eliminate a decades-old meal-subsidy structure for students in high-poverty schools.

Baltimore is among a handful of districts in Maryland taking advantage of the opportunity that was opened to schools nationwide last year. Maryland schools are able to adopt the program under state legislation passed this year in the General Assembly.

Del. Keith Haynes, chief sponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday during an announcement at Beechfield Elementary/Middle School that the law is the “great equalizer” for city students, closing one more gap that exists from socio-economic disparities.

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Eighty-four percent of Baltimore students qualified for free and reduced-priced meals this year based on family income under the National School Lunch Program, established in 1946. About 13,000 paid $3 for lunch this year; the district dropped its reduced-priced meals in 2013 and paid the subsidy for those students to eat for free.

Haynes pointed out that not only does the option, called “community eligibility,” eliminate a stigma that students can feel if they qualify for free lunch, but it also eliminates barriers for students, such as those who are homeless and can’t get paperwork in, who never have the chance to qualify.

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Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said his group is thrilled the city is now participating. “This is exactly what the program was meant to do,” said Wilson, who led the charge to bring community eligibility to Maryland.

He said Baltimore City is a prime example of a diverse population of students the program was create to serve.

Schools and school districts where at least 40 percent of the population is considered low-income can participate.

Officials pointed out that the district stands to gain financially. Wilson said the organization estimates that the district would have received over $4 million more in federal funding had it implemented the program sooner.

In the past, the city has received federal funding based on the number of applications for free and reduced-price meals that were returned from families of low-income students.

Under the new structure, the system will be reimbursed based on the number of meals it serves. {snip}

School officials said they don’t anticipate any negative financial impact from opting into the program.

“This is just a great deal for schools, the school district, and the City of Baltimore,” Wilson said.

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