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Howard County school system passes 1 million meals milestone amid coronavirus pandemic

The Howard County Public School System distributed its millionth free meal last week, roughly three months after launching its “Grab-N-Go” program to feed county children during the coronavirus pandemic.

The meal program operates five days a week at 14 locations, and as of Friday had distributed 1,022,120 meals.

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“It’s not surprising that we’ve reached 1 million [meals], but it’s also a testament to our commitment of taking care of our children,” said schools Superintendent Michael Martirano. “That’s more than just a number. There is a whole lot of passion and love behind those 1 million meals.”

The food program started March 17, four days after schools closed because of the pandemic. Each day, three meals and a snack are distributed at 14 sites, including Howard High School and Oakland Mills Middle School. A parent who shows up and requests meals for three children would receive lunch, dinner and a snack for each child as well as breakfast for the next morning. On Fridays, the distribution sites also give out meals for the weekend.

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Rosalie Edwards, an area field representative in the school system’s food and nutrition department, said that she “couldn’t be more proud” of the 80 employees involved. On Friday, the day the school system cleared a million meals, Edwards was at Howard High for the distribution around 500 meals.

For breakfast, some meals students receive are egg and cheese sandwiches, cereal or bagels. For lunch and dinner, the meals range from cheeseburgers, ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza or chicken, among many other types of meals. The meals also provide milk, fruit and vegetables.

“It’s rewarding that we can provide this service to the community,” Edwards said.

“I call them my superheroes,” Brian Ralph, the school system’s director of food and nutrition, said of the employees working the sites. “They have been out there every single day, five days a week for 12 weeks providing that service.”

During the typical school year, approximately 5.5 million meals are served to approximately 59,000 students, according to Ralph. Students who qualify for the Free and Reduced Meals program, known as FARMs, receive breakfast and lunch on school days. During the pandemic, however, it was critical not to limit the meals initiative to only students in FARMs, Ralph said.

There are virtually no criteria for receiving “Grab-N-Go” meals. No application or enrollment is needed, and children don’t have to be on site when parents or guardians pick up meals.

“It makes absolutely no sense to have students come to get meals every single day when they could be doing something academically,” Ralph said.

Martirano, who said he grew up in poverty and was provided free and reduced meals as a student, wants the school system to “break that stigma of poverty.”

“If you understand the dynamics of poverty, it’s a very humbling process or experience to have to ask for food,” Martirano said. “Understanding the dynamics of that, we don’t want to create any further challenges for families who may feel stigmatized by poverty. There should be no embarrassment or shame.”

Other counties in the area hit the 1 million meals mark in May, as those jurisdictions have higher populations and higher FARMs rates. Twenty-three percent of Howard County students are in the FARMs program, up from 15% in the past six years.

“That 23% represents 13,000 kids,” Martirano said.

Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties have FARMs rates of a little over 30%, while Baltimore County is at 44% and Prince George’s County at 60%. According to data from the 2018-19 school year, Howard County has the third-lowest FARMs rate in the state, behind only Calvert and Carroll counties.

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“We are one of the lowest in the state regarding free and reduced [meals],” Ralph said. “While counties like Baltimore County and Montgomery County have already passed the [1 million] mark, you have to put into perspective that they’re bigger. In terms of what we are doing with our FARMs rate and our number of sites, we believe what we are doing is even more effective.”

The current meals program ends June 30, but the school system’s summer program, which will distribute two meals per child per day, will begin July 1 and end Aug 14. The program is funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Maryland State Department of Education.

Ralph said he expects the FARMs rate in Howard County to increase next year due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will see an uptick in Howard County that will put the onus on us to step up to the plate,” Ralph said.

“I grew up in poverty and took full advantage of free and reduced meals,” Martirano said. “I encourage the community during this time, many who have lost their jobs or are struggling, to apply for free and reduced meals.”

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