Harford school officials say they are closing the gap on feeding needy students

Although Harford County Public Schools has not yet met the state's goals for student participation in the Free and Reduced Meals program – to the point they attracted a recent plea from Gov. Martin O'Malley to "feed these kids" – school officials stressed Monday they are working to get as many eligible kids fed as possible.

Despite the shortcomings in the local FARMs program, Harford schools lead the state in several service categories, the head of the HCPS nutrition program told members of the Harford County Board of Eduction at their meeting Monday.

"We market," Gary Childress, supervisor of food and nutrition, said. "We work hard to make sure that these kids who have the greatest need are brought into the cafeteria."

Childress spoke to the board along with staffers Della Eiche, food and nutrition specialist, Kristen Sudzina, food service specialist, and Karen Olsen, registered dietitian, about the Department of Food and Nutrition Services and its breakfast, lunch and summer meal programs for students from low-income families.

The presentation lasted about 50 minutes, including time for questions from board members. Childress said later the presentation had been planned "for weeks" and was not in response to reports last week that the governor planned to speak to Harford County school officials about increasing student participation when they were scheduled to be in Annapolis in early February.

Close to one third of the 38,000 public school students in Harford are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast, HCPS officials said.

Childress noted during his presentation that HCPS' food and nutrition program earned the school system a "District of Excellence" designation from the School Nutrition Association, a national professional organization of school food service entities, in 2009.

Individual staffers have also received national recognitions in their field, he said.

The 70 percent

O'Malley, along with the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland, is encouraging school districts across the state to narrow the gap between the number of students who eat the free and reduced-price breakfast and those who eat lunch at school to 70 percent.

Essentially, state officials are pushing for school districts to have 70 percent of the students who eat free and reduced lunch in a particular school district also eat breakfast.

In early February, O'Malley personally delivered that message to Harford County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who was attending a meeting of the Maryland Board of Public Works in Annapolis, where local school construction projects were being discussed. O'Malley, who chairs the board, passed her a copy of a table showing student participation in FARMs in the Harford schools. He circled numbers for the breakfast program and wrote, "Pls. feed these kids."

School officials weren't at that meeting. Classes were canceled that day for snow, so nobody attended, and there has been considerable back-and-forth since with local elected officials about whether they should have attended. The school system response has been that the appropriate state officials were contacted beforehand and told the reason for the absence and that HCPS was essentially excused as a result.

Harford County Public Schools' breakfast-to-lunch rate was 58.81 percent as of Jan. 31 for the current year, according to data presented by Childress and his staff Monday. The rate was 45.98 percent in 2008-2009 school year, when enrollment was higher but eligibility was more restricted.

Childress stressed to school board members that he and his staff are working to close gap and get to 70 percent. He also said HCPS still is near the top among Baltimore metropolitan-area counties in making such progress.

Harford County had the second-highest rate among six counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area – Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford and Howard – during the previous school year, coming behind Cecil County which was closest to the state's goal with a rate of 68.19 percent, according to data from Childress and his staff.

"I would stay that our efforts, and the numbers that we're getting, are right were we should be," Childress said in response to questions from board member James Thornton about the 70 percent goal. "We're constantly looking to see where we can improve."

Thornton said he was trying to identify "the barriers that are preventing students from taking advantage of the breakfast meals."

Childress said many older students tend to skip breakfast, and in a number of other cases "a lot of parents still feel it's their responsibility to serve breakfast," so the children do not need the school breakfast.

He noted more students could get breakfast if more schools were added to the Maryland Meals for Achievement Program, in which all students in a school, regardless of the economic circumstances, get breakfast if at least 40 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced meals; 13 schools already participate.

Eligibility expands

More than 11,000 of the Harford school system's 37,927 students enrolled for the 2013-2014 school year, or 30.4 percent, are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals, according to the data presented Monday.

The data showed that 8,757 of those eligible students eat free and reduced lunch, while 5,150 students eat breakfast.

Childress noted 21.1 percent of 39,041 students enrolled for the 2006-2007 school year were eligible.

He said factors that have caused the increase in eligibility include the "sluggish growth of the economy," greater outreach by federal officials to enroll eligible families in aid programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is typically known as the federal food stamp program, and efforts by the school system to identify eligible students.

Childress said food and nutrition staffers work with school principals and other administrators, social service agencies and students themselves to determine who is eligible.

He stressed there is no "overt" way to identify a potentially eligible student in the lunch line.

"There's a personal contact that's then taken to make sure that if the student is in need, if that family is in need, in today's economy, we try and identify them and make sure the student's needs are met," he said.

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