For the first time in the history of the school lunch program, all children in Baltimore are created equal.
Beginning this week, every student in the city, regardless of income level, is being offered free breakfast and lunch under a federal program that allows school districts to eliminate a decades-old meal-subsidy structure for students in high-poverty schools.
Baltimore is among a handful of districts in Maryland taking advantage of the opportunity that was opened to schools nationwide last year. Maryland schools are able to adopt the program under state legislation passed this year in the General Assembly.
Del. Keith Haynes, chief sponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday during an announcement at Beechfield Elementary/Middle School that the law is the "great equalizer" for city students, closing one more gap that exists from socio-economic disparities.
"We know that nutritious, balanced meals has a direct correlation to positive outcomes for our students," said Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat. "And we know not everyone has access to that."
Eighty-four percent of Baltimore students qualified for free and reduced-priced meals this year based on family income under the National School Lunch Program, established in 1946. About 13,000 paid $3 for lunch this year; the district dropped its reduced-priced meals in 2013 and paid the subsidy for those students to eat for free.
Haynes pointed out that not only does the option, called "community eligibility," eliminate a stigma that students can feel if they qualify for free lunch, but it also eliminates barriers for students, such as those who are homeless and can't get paperwork in, who never have the chance to qualify.
"We have some students who, if they don't get it at school, they don't get it at all," Haynes said.
The city joins Somerset and Washington counties, which are participating in the program, along with one school in Howard County.
At Beechfield, the announcement was welcome news.
Principal Renee Browning said she has seen her middle-school students sharing their lunches with one another when students can't afford to pay. The school offers students other options, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but they're a hard sell to a pre-teenager.
She said the stakes of an empty stomach — research shows hungry students are at a great disadvantage in the classroom — are even higher as city students enter an era of more rigorous lessons under the Common Core standards.
"This means from Day 1 to Day 180, every child will have a free school lunch and they will be focused on their academics," Browning said.
But while exciting, the announcement surprised sixth-grader Katia Stanford.
"I think it's good, and kind of crazy because kids should have been getting free lunch from the beginning if they knew kids was hungry," she said.
Advocates agreed. The city was criticized for not opting into the program two years ago when it raised lunch prices to $3, among the highest in the nation. School system officials said then that the city could have lost some state funding if it took part in the program without state legislation.
Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said his group is thrilled the city is now participating. "This is exactly what the program was meant to do," said Wilson, who led the charge to bring community eligibility to Maryland.
He said Baltimore City is a prime example of a diverse population of students the program was create to serve.
Schools and school districts where at least 40 percent of the population is considered low-income can participate.
Officials pointed out that the district stands to gain financially. Wilson said the organization estimates that the district would have received over $4 million more in federal funding had it implemented the program sooner.
In the past, the city has received federal funding based on the number of applications for free and reduced-price meals that were returned from families of low-income students.
Under the new structure, the system will be reimbursed based on the number of meals it serves. In other districts that have opted into the community eligibility option, the number of meals served has soared.
School officials said they don't anticipate any negative financial impact from opting into the program.
"This is just a great deal for schools, the school district, and the City of Baltimore," Wilson said.
David T. Clements, the single parent of two city students, said he plans to put the $30 a week he was paying for his children's lunches toward their college funds.
Clements, executive director of House of David, an advocacy group for fathers, said the relief will be felt by any parent who has to pay for additional meals.
"Given the socio-economic status of the city, it's a no-brainer," Clements said of the program. "Parents can now take that money and apply it to their futures."