Reviews | Every child in Maryland deserves healthy meals – free of charge

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Adam Zimmerman is a communications consultant who lives in Rockville.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) recently updated its policy regarding student meal debt. Among other changes, students eligible for free or reduced-price meals will not be required to pay off their debt. The MCPS superintendent may seek private donations to reduce the amount families owe. And a proposal requiring students in debt to receive another meal – which invites stigma and abuse – has been dropped.

The new plan is an improvement. But the fact that it is necessary is an abomination. If all students received free school meals, the school meals debt would not exist. Indeed, federal waivers have allowed schools across the country to do just that for the past two years. But despite knowing for months that the federal government would not extend these waivers beyond their June 30 expiration date, state and local authorities in Maryland have not done enough to mitigate the inevitable consequences on the children’s health and learning. Regardless of family income, no child should ever have to pay for school meals.

The severe loss of jobs, loss of wages and school closures that marked the first months of the coronavirus pandemic have sparked a wave of food insecurity across the country. To their credit, Congress and the Department of Agriculture have stepped up. Since 2020, every child has been entitled to free school meals and schools have received higher reimbursement rates. Waivers kept a bad situation from getting worse.

Allowing waivers to expire now is a terrible time; participation rates in school meal programs are still significantly lower than pre-pandemic totals, and school meal services are still grappling with major financial disruptions, staff shortages and supply chain issues. But ending school meals for all would be wrong at any time, given the significant long-term benefits they provide, including lower rates of food insecurity, improved diets, better school results and more education. money for schools.

California and Maine have passed legislation to continue providing free school lunches after federal waivers expire. With nearly 200,000 children in Maryland, including 60,000 in Montgomery County, facing food insecurity, it’s unconscionable that we haven’t followed suit. Legislation to this effect introduced in the General Assembly came to nothing. Our state legislators managed to find $1.2 billion to fund the modernization of Camden Yards and the M&T Bank stadium in Baltimore, but were unwilling to commit the $27 million investment needed for each child in our state receives a free school lunch next year. Out of shame.

State legislators must right this wrong, but local authorities must also act. If localities don’t have the funds to fully cover the cost of all school meals – and they should be looking into every crevice and under every rock to find those dollars – there are still several steps that are within reach, including :

Cover the cost of unpaid school lunch debt. According to the MCPS Education Foundation, one-third of schools in Montgomery County accrue at least $2,500 in school lunch debt in any given year, with some schools averaging more than $10,000. Students should not be forced to hope that wealthy benefactors or philanthropists can come to their aid. Public funds should cover the debt cost of public school meals.

Participate in Community Eligibility Provision. Under CEP, schools or districts with more than 40 percent of children in low-income families can serve free meals to all students. More than 171,000 Maryland students attended schools participating in community eligibility in the 2020-2021 school year, but fewer than 75% of eligible districts in Maryland adopted CEP. Every eligible school district should make participation a priority.

Make it easier for families to apply for free school meals. The USDA released income eligibility guidelines for free and reduced-price meals for the 2022-2023 school year in February, but they are inexplicably not featured on the Food and Nutrition Services website. from MCPS. Paper applications for free and reduced-price meals, usually sent home after the start of the school year, are expected to be distributed over the summer instead. Districts should provide free assistance to help families complete them by hand or electronically.

Imagine forcing a child to pay an extra fee to walk through the school gate. Charging a child or family for school meals – when that meal is as important to their health, education and well-being as anything they learn in the classroom – is an equally absurd notion. School meals for all were slow in coming. Now that they’re here and we’ve seen the impact in Maryland and beyond, we shouldn’t let them go.

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