Going back to school means different things to different kids. For some, it’s seeing friends again after a long summer apart. For others, it’s a last desperate push to bulk up that college application. And for still others, it’s time to participate in varsity sports, proudly representing the Bulls, Lions or Raiders.

But for too many children, going back to school means getting a good lunch five days a week after going without during the summer months. And for those lucky enough to arrive early, it also means getting a hearty breakfast to start the day.

For the first time in our nation’s history, more than half of the public school students in the United States are from low-income families who live in poverty and qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) program. The situation isn’t much better in Baltimore County where nearly 47 percent — more than 52,000 children — lived in poverty during the 2015-2016 school year, according to information published by administrators for the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS).

However, it’s even worse than reported. The number of 52,000 local students does not include pre-schoolers, children four and under. Also, it does not include children whose families have not applied for FARMS though they may be eligible.

To qualify for free meals in school, a family of three cannot earn more than about $26,000 a year and a family of four, about $31,000 a year. This is the extreme level of poverty experienced by 44,000 children in our county schools.

Fastest rise

In the Third Councilmanic District, which stretches from the Beltway to the Pennsylvania line and includes all of the Hereford Zone, poverty levels in most schools are far lower than in other councilmanic districts. In the First (Halethorpe/Relay/Catonsville), Fourth (Randallstown), Sixth (Essex/Middle River) and Seventh (Dundalk) districts, the majority of schools have poverty rates of more than 50 percent with some as high as 70, even 80 percent.

But the trend in the Third District is worrisome; the Third is experiencing the fastest rise in the county of students in poverty, nearly a 200 percent increase between 2004 and 2014. At my son’s former high school, Loch Raven High School, the poverty rate has tripled over the past 12 years to 33 percent of the student population or 286 students.

Here’s your first test of the 2015-2016 school year: What percentage of students in your local school (elementary, middle or high) are eligible for FARMS?

Below is a sampling of public schools in northern Baltimore County with the number of students eligible for free and reduced price meals for the 2015-2016 school year and the percentage of the student population at that school. This information for all Baltimore County schools is available on the BCPS website: https://www.bcps.org/offices/ofns/pdf/fr_meal_statistics/2015-16.pdf

Schools Percentage Farms Eligible
Hereford HS 90 students 7.6%
Dulaney HS 373 students 20.2%
Loch Raven HS 286 students 32.9%
Hereford MS 80 students 8.1%
Cockeysville MS 251 students 30.6%
Pine Grove MS 327 students 37.1%
Mays Chapel ES 169 students 25.2%
Fifth District ES 40 students 14.3%
Timonium ES 44 students 10.1%
Seventh District ES 36 students 8.6%
Carroll Manor ES 19 students 5.7%
Jacksonville ES 25 students 4.6%
Sparks ES 19 students 3.6%

Improved test scores

Why are free and reduced meals important to educators? If students are hungry, they don’t learn.

Research demonstrates that children who eat a good breakfast tend to perform better in school, have better attendance and exhibit fewer behavior problems. Also, children who eat a good breakfast develop healthy eating habits, visit the school nurse less frequently and are less likely to be obese.

A good breakfast helps ensure that a student will have the energy and focus needed to make the most of the school day. One study found a 17.5 percent average increase in standardized math test scores by students who regularly start the day with a healthy breakfast.

Full prices for breakfast and lunch in elementary schools are $1.40 and $2.90 respectively; in middle and high schools, breakfast costs $1.55 and lunch costs $3.00. Remember: to qualify for free meals, a family income cannot exceed 130 percent of the federal poverty level so in 2016-2017, a family of four can make no more than $31,590 per year for their children to receive free meals in school. For reduced price meals (students pay only 30 cents for breakfast, 40 cents for lunch), the income limit is no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level or $44,955 a year for a family of four.

These extremely low income limits are unrealistic for people living in Maryland where housing costs are high. Federal poverty levels are not adjusted for states with higher costs of living, except in Alaska and Hawaii. So a person living in Alabama and someone living in Maryland are treated as if they have the same costs of living though, for example, the median housing price in Maryland is $285,000 but only $160,000 in Alabama, according to Trulia, an online residential real estate site. The federal income limits are so low that many families qualifying for reduced price meals in schools cannot even afford to pay those reduced costs.

Clearly inaccurate

But if a family of four has an income more than $44,955 a year, their children will not qualify for any assistance with meals in school wherever they reside. The determination that a family of four making $45,000 a year in Maryland is not in poverty, at least according to the federal government, is outdated and inaccurate.

One organization in Maryland has calculated the “Self-Sufficiency Wage,” the income necessary to be self-sufficient, as an alternative to the federal guidelines. According to the United Way of Central Maryland, in 2012-2013 the income required for a family of three in Baltimore County to be entirely self-sufficient, i.e. to live without any kind of public or private assistance, was 335 percent of the federal poverty level or about $66,000 a year. In Howard County, the income necessary to be self-sufficient was more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

That 52,000 Baltimore County public school students live in poverty and are eligible for FARMS (which doesn’t include children under five years of age) is an appalling statistic. But the situation is even worse. There are families making just enough to not qualify for FARMS but who are still struggling to put food on the table.

These shockingly high numbers of impoverished students and their families living in Baltimore County are not well known by many and too troubling to face by most. Until they become acknowledged, Baltimore County will remain without a systemic approach to improving education through alleviating poverty’s effects on children, one that must involve many partners. That approach should ensure every student can focus on learning and start with a good breakfast for all.

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Dr. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell is retired from teaching and was a 2014 Democratic candidate for County Council in the Third District. She now does research and advocacy on educational and environmental issues. Please send questions or comments to Ltmitchell4@comcast.net