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Baltimore County sees sharp rise in children who qualify for free lunches

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John Lee
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The president of the Dulaney High School Parent Teacher Student Association said that when students don't have money to pay full price for school lunch, they feel ashamed in front of their peers at school.

A key gauge of family poverty, children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals in public schools, is skyrocketing in Baltimore County.

Roughly 66% of the children in the county school system currently qualify for either free or reduced-price meals, according to statistics on the school system’s website. That’s up from about 44% just five years ago.

Advocates say it shows that more families in the county are struggling and that school meals should be free for all children.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all public school children across the country were offered free meals. The federal government ended that program last summer. Now families have to apply for free and reduced-price meals.

Yara Cheikh, president of the Dulaney High School Parent Teacher Student Association, said it creates lunch shaming for those students who don’t have money to pay for a meal.

“We’re now at two-thirds of our system suffering from food insecurity,” Cheikh said. “So providing every child with a lunch and a breakfast reduces the embarrassment of coming to school suffering from food insecurity and hunger.”

At Dulaney High, about 33% of the students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. That’s nearly double the percentage about a decade ago.

But for roughly two-thirds of students across the county to qualify for free and reduced price lunches doesn’t tell the whole story according to Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, founder the Student Support Network, which provides food and other essentials to children in 20 county schools.

Taylor-Mitchell said there are other families who aren’t poor enough to qualify but still need help.

“Any family that makes too much to get assistance but not enough to make ends meet is in poverty,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “It may not be as dire but they’re still in poverty and they still need a lot of assistance. And they are screwed.”

If a family of four as a household earns more than just over $51,000 on their annual tax return, they don’t qualify for the program. But to afford to live in Baltimore County, the average household needs to earn about double that, roughly $103,000 to make ends meet, according to a wage calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Students in about half of the county’s 176 schools automatically qualify for free meals under a federal program that targets schools in low income areas.

What’s happening in the county is a nationwide issue. California, Colorado and Maine passed legislation ensuring all students qualify for free meals.

Montgomery County Del. Kirill Reznik, a Democrat, is proposing legislation in the Maryland General Assembly to make school meals free statewide.

“Kids can’t study if they’re hungry,” Reznik said. “Kids can’t focus if they’re hungry. And so, it makes it an education program as well.”

Reznik proposed similar legislation last year but it did not pass.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said he supports Reznik’s legislation. But if it fails to pass this year, Olszewski said it would be hard for the county to pick up the tab for free meals just in Baltimore County schools.

“Certainly, if the state or the federal government is not able to, we will take a strong look at it, but it is much more difficult for local governments to do those kinds of initiatives on their own,” Olszewski said.

Officials were not able to put a price tag on the cost of free meals, either at the county or state level.

Yara Cheikh with the Dulaney High parent association said the details of which government pays for it is beside the point.

“There should be a sense of urgency for all of our elected officials to provide meals in schools for every child,” Cheikh said.

Taylor-Mitchell with the Student Support Network said she is hopeful because Governor Wes Moore has said dealing with child poverty is a priority.

“One of the ways that you work towards that is reducing hunger and food insecurity, which cause all kinds of stresses and anxieties with students who can’t learn if they’re hungry,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “Or they’re worried if they’re going to have dinner. Will there be food in the house on the weekend and so on and so forth.”

Maryland has a program, Maryland Meals for Achievement, that provides free breakfasts in some classrooms.

Advocates are hoping Moore will increase funding to make it available for any student who wants it.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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