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Baltimore County should embrace universal free school meals

Baltimore County schools officials’ reluctance to expand a program that allows all students in high poverty schools to get free meals — no paperwork and no strings attached — isn’t without some basis. The recently adopted federal Community Eligibility Provision has upended how participating school districts have traditionally counted the number of poor students they educate, and that has made it difficult for them to get all the federal Tile I funds they’re eligible for, or at least to make sure they go to the right schools. As The Sun reported this spring, some high-poverty Baltimore City schools have lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in Title I funds since the district went to universal free school meals.

But that problem is surmountable. The Maryland State Department of Education is working on improved measures, and federal officials have provided a series of updated guidelines over the last few years on how to manage the shift. It is worrisome that schools with high populations of immigrant children, and particularly those with undocumented immigrant children, are most often hurt financially by the under-counting of poverty, but those students are also the ones most at risk of failing to be served by the traditional free lunch program because of their parents’ lack of awareness or reluctance to fill out the necessary forms.

Moreover, the amount of money in question is small compared to the program’s benefits. Baltimore City officials say the switch to CEP hasn’t cost the district overall Title I funding, it has just changed which schools receive it. That has caused real problems for the affected schools — Patterson Park Public Charter School reports a loss of about $40,000 since the district adopted the program, which has forced it to cut staff. But in a district with a $1.3 billion operating budget, impacts on that order are manageable, particularly considering that the switch has meant millions more in federal funds for the meals program.

An entire district can participate in the CEP if 40 percent or more of its students are identified as poor based on census data, food stamp enrollment or other measures. Baltimore County is just shy of district-wide eligibility, but dozens of individual schools qualify. Only four now take advantage of the program, and advocates are seeking to expand it to the remainder of those that are eligible. No question, that could create some operational problems for the district, as a whole host of supports are associated with Title I.

But that cost has to be weighed against the benefits of increasing the number of students who get proper nutrition while in school. The issue with the traditional school lunch program isn’t just that some parents can’t figure out the form or can’t be bothered to fill it out. It’s that eligible students don’t eat the meals because of the stigma attached to poverty. That vanishes when everyone gets meals for free, and a growing body of research shows that higher rates of school meal consumption (whether breakfast or lunch) improves student health and, ultimately, academic outcomes. A new study from the University of California found that providing high-quality student lunches boosted test scores in the same way as much more expensive interventions, like reduced class size.

And the budgetary challenges posed by CEP are balanced by reduced administrative burdens of other sorts. A USDA study of CEP implementation calculated a $17 per student decrease in administrative costs associated with the program, mainly because schools no longer needed to process and verify eligibility forms. Cafeteria lines moved more smoothly, and children wound up with more time to actually eat lunch.

Baltimore County can find other ways to provide the supports and services it’s worried about losing if it moves more schools into the CEP, but there isn’t another way to get the benefits. If district officials are unwilling to move forward with CEP expansion for the coming school year, we hope that candidates for the school board will make it a part of their campaigns this fall.

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