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No free lunch for all kids in Maryland could mean some hungry students this year

Baltimore County Public Schools participates in the No Kids Hungry Maryland program.
Baltimore County Government
Baltimore County Public Schools participates in the No Kids Hungry Maryland program.

For the past two years, all students were given free lunch at public schools nationwide funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a coronavirus pandemic economic relief measure.

But additional money to keep the program going was not approved by federal lawmakers in Congress so schools are reverting back to income-based meal programs. Some advocates are concerned that it creates an unnecessary barrier for low-income families.

Kara Panowitz, senior manager of No Kid Hungry Maryland said this change will significantly affect most counties in the state.

“It's a big change. A lot of districts haven't been collecting the forms from families for the past two years because all students got free meals, so they didn't need to,” Panowitz said.

While the cost of school lunch varies across the country,data from the School Nutrition Association estimates that students paid nearly $3 for lunch each day in 2018. Since then, inflation has increased the cost for schools which will raise prices even higher.

School lunch served in Baltimore County.
Matthew Reedholm
School lunch served in Baltimore County.

To qualify for free lunch, the average family of four must earn no more than $36,075, which is 130% above the federal poverty line. For a reduced price lunch, families can earn up to $51,338, or 185% above the federal poverty line.

Public schools across Baltimore City and county but also in Dorchester and Somerset counties already provide free breakfast and lunch for all students regardless of income level through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s community eligibility provision program.

Panowitz suggests that families apply for the program as soon as possible and before October 31.

It is important that families complete the forms because students eligible for free school meals can also receive other benefits such as, “discounted exam fees, college applications, free extracurriculars, scholarship opportunities and even home internet,” she said.

Director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, Michael J Wilson said it is disappointing that the federal government was not able to extend the program and that Maryland’s General Assembly bypassed legislation that would have ensured free healthy meals for all students during this year's session.

California and Maine were the first states to pass legislation for universal free meals statewide. In Maryland, students who qualify for reduced price lunches get free meals.

Wilson said meal programs will return to the old system at the end of September. Students as well as school nutrition services will start to accumulate debt because some families will be unable to afford meals.

Student meal debt accumulated by school districts during the school year starting in 2018 ranged from $3,000 up to $100,000, according to a report from Maryland Hunger Solutions.

Students and families should not have to worry about meal debt or the stigma that comes with it, advocates said.

“That’s not why kids come to school, they are coming to school to learn. And we know if we can make sure that they can eat, then they really can learn,” Wilson said.

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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