Verletta White: Baltimore County won't adopt universal free school meals; here's why

As we prepare for every new school year, the educators and leaders of Baltimore County Public Schools continue to ask ourselves what more we can do to support every young person entrusted to our care. Providing highly effective instruction every day means wrapping our arms around each of our young people and meeting their individual needs.

When it comes to the most basic of needs, we know that hunger can be a barrier to learning. Our schools have a powerful opportunity to nourish students with meals as well as innovative learning experiences, and we take that opportunity seriously.

After several months of consideration and with support from Baltimore County government, I am so pleased to announce the Baltimore County Cares for Kids program. When our schools reopen this fall, students at all schools who qualify for free or reduced-price meals will receive breakfast and lunch at no cost to families.

It is important to note that whether paying for meals or receiving free meals, all students are able to choose their meal, which eliminates the potential for any stigma. The process is confidential to maintain the dignity of every family.

Baltimore County Cares for Kids is a thoughtful, system-wide solution that provides meaningful benefits to families while protecting Title I funding for our schools, and protecting students from losing the supplemental benefits that come with free and reduced-price meal eligibility.

While Baltimore County Cares for Kids supports all of our schools, expanding the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is not a system-wide solution because only 26 percent of BCPS students "directly certify" through food stamps, temporary cash assistance or homelessness. System-wide CEP implementation would require 40 percent of BCPS students to directly certify. Some advocates have recommended CEP expansion to certain schools, which would further affect Title I schools, and individual students would lose supplemental benefits.

What are the supplemental benefits? A family of four earning $46,435 or less annually is eligible for so much more than a meal. In addition to receiving free meals, eligible families at all schools may apply for fee waivers for: the ACT, Advanced Placement exams, CCBC, college applications and college athletics, as well as fee waivers for re-taking the SAT, which is offered to all BCPS Grade 11 students at no cost during the school day. School counselors facilitate these waiver applications once parents provide consent to use the information.

Meal eligibility also confers home technology access. Families with at least one student who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals may also apply for low-cost high-speed internet at home and a low-cost internet-ready computer through Internet Essentials from Comcast.

In these ways, meal eligibility provides a bridge for families to academic experiences outside of the classroom, including gateway exams and access to college, sports and technology. These experiences create possibilities and enhance learning.

Supports for students in need also include priority admission to free, high-quality pre-Kindergarten, free school supplies and reduced-cost or no-cost field trips, graduation gowns and other educational resources.

In addition, Baltimore County Cares for Kids is the fiscally responsible and sustainable option. For $486,000 in the coming school year, Baltimore County Cares for Kids will offer free meals at all schools to students whose families are eligible. The Maryland Cares for Kids Act, which is legislation signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in May, will fully replace county funds with state funds by Fiscal Year 2023.

What matters to us all is giving every student access to the supports they deserve — meals and otherwise. As back-to-school kicks into gear, our school staff who work closely with families — including school social workers, pupil personnel workers and nurses — will emphasize the continued and new benefits. We will reach more families by translating the eligibility form into more languages.

I deeply appreciate the engagement from community advocates, and I encourage our community partners to join us as we expand awareness of the benefits of applying for free and reduced-price meals — benefits that extend far beyond meals.

Verletta White is interim superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. Her email is vwhite@bcps.org.

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