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Advocates urge Baltimore County schools to expand free meals, but officials wary of federal fund impact

A move to provide free meals to about 9,500 students in 19 Baltimore County public schools is drawing resistance over concerns it could cost the district federal money for the system’s neediest students.

The Maryland State Conference NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County and PTA members have called on interim schools Superintendent Verletta White to implement the Community Eligibility Provision, a program that provides no-cost meals to all students in schools that are targeted.

But school officials are concerned they could lose federal Title I funding and state aid if they change the current system that collects poverty data from families, White wrote to school board members last month.

“We have concerns about the impact on other services we provide for our students and families,” White wrote.

The school system now provides free or reduced-price meals for 50,000 students. The system gathers information on family incomes to determine which students are eligible. Data from forms submitted by the families are used not only to determine federal subsidies for meals, but to bring federal dollars to the system for field trips, summer programs, scholarships, Advanced Placement classes and other programs.

Community Eligibility Provision uses a different method to count family income levels. It relies on census poverty data and information about families receiving food stamps or other forms of public assistance.

Officials say CEP tends to undercount immigrant and undocumented children. They say inaccurate data could affect not only meal subsidies but other programs.

Baltimore City schools converted to the universal free lunch program a few years ago. Officials say the move cost city schools hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding.

White wrote that a switch to universal meals would mean the income data now received as part of the free and reduced-price meal program “would not be captured from families. This type of change would likely result in fewer students identified and a decrease in funding for services, such as staffing and instructional materials in Title I schools.”

Nevertheless, some advocates believe it’s important to expand universal free meals in Baltimore County. Proponents say CEP would relieve parents of the burden of filling out forms to get free meals and, because the program provides meals to all students regardless of income, it would reduce the stigma associated with getting a free lunch in schools where not all students receive such assistance.

More than 200 schools in Maryland and 20,000 schools nationwide have implemented the program since it became available in 2014, according to the Maryland Department of Education and the Washington-based Food Research & Action Center.

“We’re talking about children and we’re talking about minority children,” said Barbara Dezmon, the Maryland State Conference NAACP education chairwoman. “Any other program that can help and alleviate the pain of hunger for even one more child should be pursued.”

Advocates have urged county school board members to tell the Maryland Department of Education that the district is considering CEP expansion. Jayne Lee, the county’s PTA Council president, urged the board to consider expanding CEP to 19 schools that are eligible because 40 percent or more of their current students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

“We absolutely believe that CEP is a key part of the community-school, wrap-around services model for which we’ve continued to advocate,” Lee said.

County school board members Kathleen Causey, Julie Henn and Emory Young voted to include a discussion of CEP at a recent board meeting, but the motion failed.

School board president Edward J. Gilliss declined comment for this article; other board members did not respond to requests for comment. William Reinhard, a spokesman for the state education department, said last week that state officials have not been notified about any consideration of a CEP expansion in Baltimore County.

Brandon Oland, a spokesman for the school system, said White’s letter “articulates the system’s stance on CEP.”

For the past two years the school system has conducted a pilot program for universal meals at four county schools deemed in need based on income data — Riverview Elementary School in the Lansdowne area, Hawthorne Elementary School near Middle River, and Dundalk middle and high schools.

The pilot was mandated by the County Council under the auspices of a Food Policy Task Force that had been established by County Councilwoman Vicki Almond. School officials say they are continuing to monitor data from the pilot; Almond said student attendance, behavior and attention have improved in those schools.

“It costs us money and I think that’s an issue for the school district and I understand that,” Almond said. “But if children are hungry they’re not going to learn as well and they’re not going to behave as well.”

School officials estimate the expansion of universal free meals would cost the district about $1 million to cover the cost of meals for students who the federal government does not identify as poor, but who may still struggle to afford food.

Almond said a supplemental allocation from the Baltimore County government to offset the cost of expanding CEP is “a possibility we need to explore.”

“I’d really like to expand it this school year, but I don’t know right now if we’re going to be able to do that,” she said.

State Del. Pat McDonough, whose district includes Hawthorne Elementary, said he doesn’t believe filling out a form to receive a free or reduced-price meal is an inconvenience.

“I think people should fill out forms when they’re receiving government subsidies paid for by taxpayers,” he said. “To me, we should document who we are providing subsidies to and we should confirm they are eligible.”

In addition to free and reduced-price meals, the school system provides nutrition programs through initiatives including a summer food service and meals distributed in a partnership with Baltimore County Public Libraries.

White said in her letter to the board that the system will continue the four-school pilot program. And despite concerns about universal free meals, she said children's nutrition remains a priority for the district.

“We appreciate the advocacy and support of our community members to ensure students’ health and, like our community members, we agree that no one wants children to go hungry,” she wrote.

llumpkin@baltsun.com

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