Maryland helps kids start the day right Participation in state's school breakfast plan is rated 13th in nation.


WASHINGTON -- Maryland finished 13th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia that were ranked for their level of participation in the federal School Breakfast Program, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), which is helping to promote the breakfast program.

Some 69.6 percent of Maryland schools that offer lunch also offer breakfast, compared with the national average of 48.8 percent, said the report released yesterday.

"Maryland is doing pretty well . . . but at about 70 percent [participation], they still have a long way to go," said Ann Kittlaus of the center.

Studies of school children have shown a direct correlation between eating breakfast, good health and educational achievement.

Children who eat breakfast get half as many colds, headaches and ear infections as children who do not, according to the center.

Breakfast eaters score higher on standardized tests, show better concentration and have better attendance than children who go hungry, according to the center.

Maryland scored extra points in the breakfast survey by being one of 15 states with a law mandating participation in the program.

The Maryland General Assembly in 1980 began requiring the elementary schools with high populations of needy students to offer breakfast.

A state law enacted in 1990 requires all schools to offer breakfast unless fewer than 15 percent of a school's students were participating in the program.

Breakfasts currently are offered in every county except for Baltimore County, which has an alternative program.

But not all schools in each county offer breakfast, with the exception of those in Anne Arundel, Dorchester, Harford, Queen Anne's and Wicomico counties, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

The program provides free meals to the neediest children. Slightly better-off students pay 30 cents, and all other students pay the full price of about $1, according to Linda Van Rooy of the Maryland Department of Education.

Federal regulations require school breakfasts to consist of one serving of milk, one fruit portion, and either two meat portions, two breads, or one meat and one bread portion, according to Melissa Zieve, program director of the Maryland Food Committee, a non-profit advocacy group.

Beyond that stipulation, food choices are up to the locality. "There is great room for parent advocacy," Ms. Zieve said.

Many "kids come to school just to get breakfast -- that really increases attendance," said Ms. Van Rooy. "When schools are closed from snow or the holidays, kids may go without meals."

Although the report commended Maryland for being one of only nine states to provide supplemental funds for the breakfast program, the financially-strapped state was forced to cut that aid 25 percent last year.

The cut means that about 19.5 percent fewer kids get reduced price breakfasts, Ms. Zieve said. The cutback helped make Maryland one of only seven states whose school breakfast program got smaller between 1990 and 1991.

Maryland also ranked slightly better than other states in participation in the program by needy students -- 31.8 percent of low-income Maryland students eat a school breakfast compared to the national average is 31.5 percent.

"Clearly a lot of outreach needs to be done to let people know that [breakfast] is there if they want it," Ms. Kittlaus said.

But she added that activists in Maryland are clearly making an effort, and the study found that about 6,000 more low-income students received breakfast in 1991 than in 1990.

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