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If schools must close, don’t let students go hungry | READER COMMENTARY

Anti-hunger advocates worry about student nutrition if school close in wake of coronavirus outbreak. One possibility might be to increase their food stamp or "SNAP" benefits.
Anti-hunger advocates worry about student nutrition if school close in wake of coronavirus outbreak. One possibility might be to increase their food stamp or "SNAP" benefits. (istockphoto.com)

As cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus increase, school systems may face difficult decisions regarding school closings. If schools close due to the virus, school systems and local and state governments must find ways to feed the thousands of students living in poverty who depend on school meals (“Towson University cancels classes this week to prevent coronavirus outbreak, may go remote after spring break,” March 10).

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, 387,412 students qualify for free or reduced price meals in Maryland public schools this year. These students and their families are living at poverty levels below 185% of the federal poverty level. This means income of less than $47,638 a year for a family of four. The 169,000 students qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) live on even less, no more than $33,475 a year for a family of four.

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What preparations are being made by local school systems and government to get food to impoverished children who cannot attend school? To paraphrase a school administrator in Baltimore discussing school closings, “when these children aren’t in school, they don’t eat." That is an accurate observation wherever children living in severe poverty are in school. In Baltimore County Public Schools, over 51,000 students qualify for free school meals this year, 44% of all students in the system.

Part of the solution could be to add extra benefits to SNAP cards for families with children. There are about 250,000 children in Maryland who depend on SNAP. If these 250,000 children received an extra $20 for food, the cost would be about $5 million. This amount includes very young children. To give the 170,000 school-aged children in Maryland qualifying for SNAP $20 each, the cost would be $3.4 million. We should be willing to spend more to feed our most vulnerable children.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also concerned about food access in school systems which may be affected by COVID-19 and has called for ensuring “continuity of meal programs." The agency’s advice? "Consider ways to distribute food to students. If there is community spread of COVID-19, design strategies to avoid distribution in settings where people might gather in a group or crowd. Consider options such as “grab-and-go” bagged lunches or meal delivery.”

State and local emergency funding should include resources to get food to our impoverished children who depend on school meals for adequate nutrition.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, Towson

The writer is president of the Student Support Network in Baltimore County.

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