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BCPS makes progress on hunger but not enough

It is great news that Baltimore County Public Schools will provide breakfast and lunch at no charge to the approximately 7,000 students now qualifying for reduced-price school meals (“Meals plus benefits,” Aug. 3). These students are in low-income, working families with incomes between about $33,000 and $47,000 a year for a family of four. This funding will reduce unpaid school meal debt and streamline operations in school cafeterias across the county. Yet thousands of students are still in need, and it remains perplexing why BCPS is leaving federal school meal funding on the table. We urge Superintendent Verletta White to take full advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, which could provide breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students in 51 high poverty schools.

With the majority of the costs reimbursed by the federal government, the school system could elect CEP for 19 schools for just $1 million per year — only 58 cents a day per student. It could fund CEP in all of the 51 high poverty schools for approximately $3 million a year. Within an annual budget of about $1.8 billion, surely BCPS can make this investment in ensuring that all children have access to the healthy food they need to be ready to learn.

Why do we need community eligibility? Because many hardworking families in Baltimore County will still not be eligible for school meal assistance. Federal school meal income limits are too low and do not take into account the high cost of living in Maryland. A family of four with an income over $47,000 does not qualify for any assistance. While “too high” to qualify, this income level is too low to be able to afford the most basic needs of housing, food and health care. (The annual income required for a family of four to be economically self-sufficient in Maryland is about $60,000 a year.)

CEP creates Hunger-Free Schools and is a proven strategy to help the thousands of children in families who make too much to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals but not enough to make ends meet.

It is important to clarify that community eligibility does not impact the amount of federal Title 1 funding provided to the school system. Title 1 funding is allotted to districts based on census poverty data. CEP does impact how school systems distribute Title 1 funding to individual schools. One benefit of CEP is that administrative costs are reduced by eliminating the need for school meal benefit applications. As a result, CEP requires that a different poverty measurement, not the school’s free and reduced-price meals rate, be used to distribute Title 1 funding to schools. CEP does not change the size of the funding pie, and BCPS can use other poverty measurements to divide Title 1 funding equitably, as 17,000 other schools across the country have already done.

Superintendent White has expressed concern that CEP may negatively affect student eligibility for other “supplemental benefits.” This concern is unnecessary because CEP actually expands access to benefits available to low-income students! About 8 million students across the U.S. attend such schools. Procedures exist for low-income students in CEP schools to access “supplemental benefits” such as AP course waivers and SAT exam fee waivers.

There is still time to do the right thing before the deadline of September 4. We urge BCPS to elect CEP and create 51 Hunger-Free Schools.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, Tam Lynne Kelley and Jayne Horowitz Lee, Towson

The writers are, respectively, co-founder of Advocates for Baltimore County Schools, a social worker and anti-hunger advocate, and president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County.

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