More on the menu

Parents of Baltimore public school students who are returning to school this week may have noticed they are spending a little more on their children's lunches this year. The schools are now charging $3 per meal — up from $2.35 for elementary and middle school students and $2.65 for high school students last year.

That's still not much for the healthy food combinations that new federal guidelines are now requiring school cafeterias to offer, with menus that are low in salt and fat and include plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits along with fewer sugary drinks. Since those ingredients are more expensive to purchase, school officials say they need to charge more to cover the increased cost.

In truth, most students and their parents probably won't notice much of a difference in lunch prices, given that more than 4 out of 5 children in the city schools come from low-families that already qualify them for free or reduced-price meals. Moreover, under the new price structure, children who were paying 40 cents for reduced-price meals will now get their lunches for free as well. And school breakfasts will remain free for all students regardless of family income.

Nevertheless, some child advocacy groups are questioning whether Baltimore missed an opportunity to expand the free school lunch program to all the city's schoolchildren. They point to a federal program called "community eligibility," which was designed for districts with high percentages of poor students. Under that program, the federal government would reimburse the district for all the meals served in the city's schools and avoid imposing a financial burden on families altogether.

But school officials counter that Baltimore's participation in the federal program would have caused it to lose a substantial amount of state funding tied to the number of applications received for free and reduced-price lunches. That's because the formula the state uses to establish funding levels for school lunches is calculated based on information contained in students' applications for free and reduced lunches. If the city hadn't submitted those forms to state officials, the state would have had no way of applying its formula for state aid to education.

On the face of it, this seems more of a bureaucratic paperwork glitch than a serious reason not to expand the free school lunch program. Surely there were other ways school officials could have complied with the requirements of the state's funding formula, even if it didn't have students' free- and reduced-priced meals applications in hand. State officials ought to have been able to come up with a modified formula or some other work-around that would have allowed to city school system to take advantage of the federal food program — and indeed, they have already offered several possible solutions to break the logjam. But for some reason city school officials have failed to take them up on it.

As a result, Baltimore families whose incomes are just over the cut-off point for the free lunch program — about $43,568 for a family of four this year — are now paying some of highest prices for their children's school meals of any comparable district in the state or country. In Prince George's County, for example, the most expensive school lunch is $2.85. New York City school lunches cost $1.75 this year, Los Angeles charges $2 and Washington high school students pay $2.50. Baltimore's new lunch price is also higher than those in Chicago, Miami, Boston and Denver.

It's not too late for city and state school officials to get this right. Although technically Baltimore City has missed the deadline for applying for the federal food program, if state and city officials continue to meet it's likely they could up also with a solution similar to those that have allowed cities like Chicago and Detroit, which also have large concentrations of low-income families, to take advantage of the federal community eligibility program. If we want Baltimore students to be able to do their best, we need to do everything possible to make sure they have what they need, and that includes healthy foods that sustain them throughout the school day.

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