Campaign aims to highlight importance of school meals


Math class can be tough when your stomach is grumbling.

"If children don't eat, they can't learn," said Julie Ayers, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Food Committee, an anti-hunger group. "The equation is that simple."

That's why the committee has joined forces with state and local officials to tout the importance of school breakfasts and lunches.

The school meals campaign began today with events in five communities around the state, including Baltimore.

"It's a way of letting people know about school meals," said Linda Van Rooy, an official with the state Department of Education's nutrition and transportation service. "A well-nourished child . . . is going to learn better."

At the Charles Carroll of Carrollton Elementary School in East Baltimore, 9-year-old Rodrick Davis said he's all for school meals -- especially breakfast.

"When you get up in the morning, your stomach is growling," the fourth-grader said. "Sometimes you don't have time for breakfast at home and you have to wait for lunchtime at noon.

"It's hard when you're standing in front of the class and your stomach is growling and everybody hears it. But the breakfast here is good for you and good for your health."

In part, the program is intended to promote the importance of school meals for all children, not just those from low-income families who may qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Ayers said.

"We're doing that consciously, to try to get away from the stigma," she said of subsidized meals. But subsidized meals remain an important part of the daily diet for thousands of students.

Statewide, all counties have a free and reduced-price lunch program, and all but Baltimore County have a free breakfast program.

Those programs are open to students whose families receive Food Stamps or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Last year, 124,025 Maryland students were eligible for free school meals, or 17.4 percent of the total enrollment. Another 37,831, or 5.3 percent, were eligible for reduced-price meals.

In Baltimore, 58,000 students, or 53 percent of the student body, qualified for free meals, and another 8,600 students, or 8 percent, were eligible for reduced-price meals.

And this year, state officials have cut the red tape for students who may qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

For the first time, local school districts have direct access to information on families who receive food stamps or AFDC. Those families can then be contacted by mail and told that their children are eligible for subsidized meals. Previously, families had to fill out an application form, which officials say may have discouraged some from participating.

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