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'Feed these kids,' governor tells Harford school officials

State wants more kids in free breakfast program, but O'Malley's appeal last month was missed by HCPS leaders

BY KRISHANA DAVIS, kdavis@baltsun.com

6:58 PM EST, March 6, 2014

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Gov. Martin O'Malley says Harford County Public Schools need to feed breakfast to more of their low income students.

O'Malley wanted to deliver that message in person to school officials when they attended the annual Board of Public Works annual review of local school projects held in Annapolis on Feb. 5.

Trouble was, nobody from HCPS made the trip. As noted in previous articles, they stayed home because all school activities in Harford were canceled because of inclement weather.

"There are currently in Harford County, 3,518 kids, who while they qualify for free and reduced lunch, do not get a free or reduced breakfast, so it's a fairly sizable little delta there," O'Malley can be heard saying on a recording of the Feb. 5 BOPW meeting.

In the school officials absence, O'Malley gave a packet to Harford County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who was present. The packet contained a chart showing the number of eligible HCPS students who, as of Oct. 2012, were participating in free or reduced price lunch, but not school breakfast.

O'Malley circled the number and wrote: "Pls. feed these kids."

The chart and other information in the packet were compiled by the Partnership to Childhood Hunger in Maryland, a joint effort of the Maryland Governor's Office of Children and an organization called Share Our Strength, which operates a campaign called No Kid Hungry.

As of October 2012, about 10,811 of 38,114 HCPS students were eligible for the federal free and reduced meals, or FARMs, program, according to a the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland report.

In 2012, 8,489 FARMs participated in the lunch program in Harford, 4,971 in the breakfast program. Among all eligible students, 62 percent were taking both lunch and breakfast, according to the report.

The Partnership to End Early Childhood Hunger recommends Harford County and other school districts in Maryland reach 70 percent in FARMs breakfast participation among eligible students. Based on the 2012 figures, Harford would need to feed an additional 702 students breakfast to reach that percentage.

The report also states Harford schools had 8,805 students participating in the FARMs lunch program and 5,459 participating in breakfast, a difference of 3,346, as of October 2013, in the current school year. Figures on total students eligible for FARMs and total enrollment this school year were not included; however, HCPS enrollment stood at 37,913 as of Sept. 30, 2013, according to the HCPS website.

The same packet O'Malley handed to Lisanti also contained a letter addressed to Harford School Superintendent Barbara Canavan from Anne Sheridan, executive director for the Governor's Office for Children, and Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery highlighting additional funds in the governor's budget allotted specifically for local school breakfast programs.

On Feb. 12, Lisanti sent an e-mail to Canavan requesting that the superintendent meet with Lisanti and Sheridan to discuss possible resources available to get Harford County to the 70 percent compliance recommended.

"I am glad the governor brought this to my attention; until now I was unaware Harford County was not meeting the threshold of 70 percent," Lisanti said Thursday. "It's upsetting to me. We are a very wealthy state. We are a very wealthy county. I believe it's the shared values of the community that we don't let children go hungry."

The councilman also said she never heard back from Canavan about her request for a meeting, nor had the superintendent responded about the information presented in O'Malley's packet.

Joe Licata, HCPS chief of administration, said a presentation on FARMs participation is on the agenda for the Harford County Board of Education's meeting this coming Monday night.

Strides claimed

HCPS has made significant strides in the last five years to increase the number students participating in the free and reduced breakfast program, Gary Childress, the school system's director of food and nutrition, said Thursday.

"We are constantly working to increase our breakfast participation." Childress said. "In the last five years we've increased our participation from 45 percent to around 60 percent."

During the last five years, the school system secured funds from Maryland Meals for Achievement program to provide in-class breakfast at several schools.

This school year, 13 schools are participating in the program: Bakerfield Elementary, Deerfield Elementary, Dublin Elementary, Edgewood Elementary, Edgewood Middle, George D. Lisby Elementary, Halls Cross Roads Elementary, Havre de Grace Elementary, Magnolia Elementary, Magnolia Middle, Riverside Elementary, Roye-Williams Elementary and William Paca-Old Post Road Elementary.

To be eligible for the Maryland Meals for Achievement Program, schools must have 40 percent of their total enrollment eligible for free and reduced lunch, Brenda Schwaab, specialist for Maryland Meals for Achievement and School Breakfast, said.

At these schools, every student receives a free breakfast in the classroom, regardless of whether they are eligible it based on need, Schwaab said.

Childress said Harford schools also started an outreach initiative to inform students and parents that breakfast is offered at every public elementary, middle and high school in the county.

"We are working to make sure people understand when they are approved [for FARMs], that when people get lunch benefits that transcends to breakfast," Childress said.

Last week, Harford launched a pilot grab-and-go breakfast program at Patterson Mill Middle and High School in Bel Air, Childress said. He said tables are set up in at the school entrance and students can purchase their breakfast before the school bell rings.

Childress said the school system is working to determine what it will take to make the grab-and-go program successful, so it can be expanded to more schools.

According to Childress, providing students breakfast before school has cut down on the number of nurse visits during the school day, increased the number of students getting to school on time and increased student's attention spans during the school day.

"We set a high bar for us to reach and we are striving to reach that bar," Childress said.

Ways to improve

The governor's packet intended for Harford school system officials includes a list of recommendations to help increase breakfast participation for students eligible for free and reduced lunch from the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland.

Among them are that Harford should pursue after the bell breakfast strategies for the five schools eligible for, but not receiving, Maryland Meals for Achievement funding: Aberdeen Middle School, Edgewood High School, Joppatowne High Schools and the two alternative education programs run from the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen.

According to Schwaab, O'Malley has put additional funding in the new state budget to fund more schools in the program next year.

The Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland also recommends Harford identify opportunities to increase breakfast programs at all schools, including educating students, families and staff members about the relationship between breakfast and academic success.

Another suggestion is for school officials to monitor school climate, bus schedules and other conditions that might pose barriers to breakfast participation.