How many children can you feed with one parked car?

PTA staffs lots for Navy football and helps children buy lunches

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Saturday was busy for the members of the Germantown Elementary School PTA.

Parents and teachers spent the morning and afternoon shoe-horning cars into every square inch of space around the Annapolis school, handling the overflow parking from nearby Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Saturday was Homecoming, and the football game drew a sell-out crowd, including lots of fans of Navy's opponent, the University of Pittsburgh.

At $20 a car — $45 for a bus or a camper — it was a big payday, too. The PTA parks an average of 575 cars for every home game, but for Homecoming, as well as the Air Force game earlier this season, the number jumps to more than 850.

They used to park more than 1,200 cars on Navy football Saturdays, said former PTA treasurer Kevin Chase. But the new Germantown building and renovations to the adjacent playing field have cut that number by a third. The PTA is waiting to hear when the playing fields will be available for parking again.

In the meantime, at the urging of Germantown Principal Walter Reap, the PTA spends most of its money on field trips for the more than 700 students instead of on teacher supplies. More than 70 percent of the children, ages 4 to 10, live in poverty, and he wants them to have the kinds of experiences that will last longer than a notebook or a pencil.

But the money is also waiting for the kids at the end of the cafeteria line.

That's where a child can suddenly discover that there isn't enough money in his pocket or on his lunch card to pay for what's on his tray.

Because of food safety rules, that lunch has to be dumped in the garbage. The child is given instead two slices of bread and a slice of cheese. Sometimes fruit or a vegetable is included, but no milk.

"Their friends see them walk away with that cheese sandwich, and they know," said Lynnann Derrick, who has two children at Germantown. "We call it the 'walk of shame.'"

That's what happened to Ms. Derrick's second-grader when he forgot his lunch in the back seat of the car. He didn't have a lunch card because he always carried his own lunch.

"I took a really deep breath first," when one of the kindergarten assistants told her what happened. "I thought, 'This can't possibly be happening to these kids. They see their lunch thrown away and they are given a cheese sandwich?'"

She went to Mr. Reap, and she said he saw the problem immediately. "I just could not stand to see students coming from lunch upset about what had happened," he said. Maybe, he offered, this was something the PTA could help with.

So for the third year, the PTA is supplying the spare change the children might need for lunch, which costs $2.60 a day. It spent $2,000 the first year, about $2,500 last year and about $600 so far this year.

"It seems to be increasing," said Mr. Reap. "But it also seems to be situational." Lost lunch, lost money, a lunch card with a low balance. But the children could also be among what he calls "the hidden hungry" — families or students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches but who don't want to be identified as poor. "This helps us find out what the issue is," he said.

When the new Germantown opened three years ago, right next door to the old school, the enrollment jumped from 400 to almost 800, and the number of needy students increased by 60 percent. It is the largest Title I school in Anne Arundel County, Mr. Reap said. The last thing the school needs to deal with is the shame of a cheese sandwich.

"It was creating quite a disruption in our school," said Mr. Reap.

School lunches are federally funded, and the schools are not permitted to simply give the food away, explained Jody Risse, who heads food and nutrition services for the county. Food safety rules require that everything but the milk container be discarded, she explained. "But the children are given an alternative so they are fueled and ready to learn."

But for only about 125 parked cars each year, nobody at Germantown Elementary has to feel ashamed of what's on their lunch tray.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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