After 16 years with the Baltimore county school system, Kate Miller has learned to spot the signs in students. They are groggy. They may be irritable and have trouble concentrating. It usually means the student is hungry.

And it's more obvious on Mondays mornings, or after school breaks, when they've gone several days without enough to eat.

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"You will just have those moments that it will become very apparent that they haven't eaten in a while," said Miller, an assistant principal at Hawthorne Elementary in Middle River.

Hawthorne, like many schools across the county, offers free and reduced-price lunch, but the process for getting it is cumbersome and bureaucratic. It requires forms and proof of income and can be daunting for immigrant families and others who don't know how to navigate the process. It can also be embarrassing for students who don't want to stand out for getting free lunches while other kids have to pay.

Beginning next school year, all 600-some students at Hawthorne could receive free breakfast and lunches. The Baltimore County Council on Monday will vote on whether to approve $485,000 for a pilot program that would extend the free meal program to all students at Hawthorne and at three other county schools — Riverview Elementary, Dundalk Middle and Dundalk High schools — regardless of income or need. Roughly 3,200 students would get the meals daily.

"There are a lot of children who are not eating. We shouldn't have hungry kids," said council chairwoman Vicki Almond, who introduced the resolution to establish the pilot.

She said many students who get free lunches are embarrassed by it. "All of the kids know," she said. As a result, school administrators said, many students eligible for free meals don't accept them.

The county pilot would be part of a national program that allows schools with large numbers of low-income students to provide free meals to everyone. It would mean parents would not have to fill out forms to get their children access to the free meals, an off-putting hurdle thought to reduce participation and add work for school officials who must verify applications.

Proponents say the measure would encourage more kids to eat nutritious meals, which will improve academic performance.

"These children can't do their best in school because they are hungry," Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said during a council hearing this week. "They aren't getting the nutrition they need to pay attention in class. They are losing ground in their learning year after year because they cannot focus on their education."

At the hearing, council members of both parties expressed support for the pilot as a means of studying the idea.

At Hawthorne Elementary, Miller said some teachers keep a stash of granola bars, crackers or other snacks in their classrooms for students who are noticeably hungry.

"I can't tell you how many times teachers will have a back up," the principal said.

As part of the pilot, school officials would collect data on attendance, test scores and disciplinary actions to help determine whether to expand the program to other county schools.

More than 17,000 schools across the country offer free meals to all students, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds school meal programs. Baltimore City schools offer free meals to students systemwide, as do the Somerset County Public Schools. Both school systems have large populations of children from low-income homes. Other counties offer the program at a handful of schools.

Schools that qualify for free meals for the entire student body must have more than 40 percent of their students identified as low-income, under federal guidelines. This means the students' families are already receiving other government assistance programs or the students are in foster care, homeless or meet other eligibility criteria.

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Schools with high concentrations of poor students receive a larger percentage of federal funding for the schoolwide provision, while the county would pay the rest of the cost.

The schools participating in the pilot program were chosen based on discussions with county school leaders and the school system's food and nutrition service. Among other things, they looked at the size of the student body and the costs associated with the meals. The level of need was also considered, but school system administrators wanted to include schools with varying need.

Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, an advocacy group that supports school-wide free meals, said it's more efficient for schools in high poverty areas to just provide the meals to everyone.

In schools that use the new model, he said many students, especially at the high school level, are more likely to eat because there's no paperwork or stigma.

"The question is, what were those kids doing before?" he said.

More than 45 percent of Baltimore County kids qualify for free and reduced price meals, according to his organization. Thirty-eight schools qualify for the schoolwide provision. Wilson said he hopes the county will expand the program to more schools in the future.

"If you have to spend less money on chasing down meal forms and doing the bureaucratic work, you can spend more time and money on meal quality and meal variety," he said.

Kristen Goldstraw, the parent service coordinator at Hawthorne, said she regularly works with parents to help guide them through the paperwork process, which can be daunting.

She said there is a lot of turnover at the school, with many students moving and switching schools. Every change of school requires parents to fill out new paperwork. In the last week, she said she has been working with the mother of three boys who has been trying to submit an online form for the free and reduced lunch program.

"Our parents come in and ask for help, but you can see how humble they are. They tried it themselves but it's not going through, and they don't know what they are doing wrong."

Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he would support the resolution because he sees it as a benefit for an entire student's family.

"We can relieve a little more burden on working families," he said, adding that just over $3 per lunch, the savings could be more than $500 per child each school year for students who pay the full cost.

Brooke McCauley, a senior manager at Maryland Hunger Solutions, said the program also eases the burden for school systems. The Baltimore County pilot project would eliminate 900 forms alone. Those forms can be difficult for the 13 percent of county residents with limited English proficiency.

Amanda Blische, a teachers' aide, has a 7-year-old first-grader at Hawthorne who gets free meals.

Blische and her daughter look over the lunch menu every night and decide whether to take a lunch or get one at school. On Thursday, her daughter opted for the school's tacos for lunch.

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"I just think it would be really helpful for parents and students, for those families who aren't able to get a meal."

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