What poor kids get from farmers' markets

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plan to use $10,000 in private foundation grants to fund a program designed to help low-income families stretch their food stamp benefits undoubtedly will help many of those struggling to make ends meet in the wake of this month's cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. Under the mayor's proposal, food stamp recipients will be able to get up to $10 extra a week if they use their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards at city farmers' markets. It doesn't make up for the $40 poor families will lose every month as a result of the cut in federal benefits, nor does it eliminate the difficulty many of them face in accessing and affording the fresh, local and healthy food available at farmers' markets. But at a time when many parents are struggling to put food on the table, every little bit helps.

A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation quantifies just how extensive are the needs of the thousands of city school children who come from low-income families, and the degree to which poverty presents them with disadvantages that often follow them throughout their lives. If Baltimore is to provide those youngsters with foundation for lifetime success — and in turn benefit from the productivity of a future well-educated, productive workforce — it must integrate its efforts across a broad spectrum of educational, nutritional, health and other interventions aimed at nurturing young talent beginning in a child's earliest years.

The Casey report, entitled "The First Eight Years," stresses the importance of policies that focus on the crucial period in childhood when the brain is still developing and relatively small investments of public funds can make a huge difference in educational and social outcomes. Nationally, fewer than 20 percent of third-graders from low-income families score at or above the national average on standardized tests in reading, math and science, and only about 50 percent maintain a healthy weight or are in "excellent" or "very good" health. Even in Maryland, one of the richest states in the nation, children from low-income families make up more than a third of the state's 661,663 children younger than eight. In Baltimore, that figure rises to 80 percent.

The report's authors say there is a wealth of research to guide the creation of an integrated early childhood intervention system. To meet the needs of every child, communities must improve access to high-quality child care and pre-Kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds so that children arrive in kindergarten with the social and cognitive skills they need in order to learn. Communities also must fund interventions that support parents of low-income youngsters, who are often inexperienced in caring for their children and stressed by poverty and crime in their neighborhoods. And interventions must be coordinated to ensure that care is comprehensive and reaches all children from birth through age eight.

That coordination is crucial to the success of such interventions, the authors say, because research shows that one or two programs working in isolation from each other, however good they may be individually, can't give children what they need to successfully meet all of the milestones of childhood development. At the same time, integrating programs and services of proven effectiveness can drastically improve the educational and social outcomes for such children. The authors point to evidence showing that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education produces a 7 percent to 10 percent annual return on investment.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake's modest initiative clearly is just one element of a comprehensive system of programs and services that enable poor families to give their children the best possible start in life. But it is nevertheless an important step, if only because it further demonstrates the city's recognition that it has a huge stake seeing to it that the nutritional needs of children from low-income families are met. Kids can no more excel in school if they lack access to nutritious food than if they come with undiagnosed health issues or vision or hearing problems. The food stamp subsidy is a temporary stopgap whose funding lasts only until the end of the farmers' market season in December. But it is an encouraging sign that the city's government and non-profit community recognize the importance of making sure poor families aren't left behind.

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