Ah, autumn. The time for celebrating the bountiful harvest, giving thanks for plenty and decorating with pumpkins, corn shocks and the obligatory cornucopia centerpiece. But for nearly half of Baltimore County school students, it’s just another season of not enough — not enough food for breakfast, not enough food for lunch and not enough food for dinner.

At one school in the Third Councilmanic District (which extends from Timonium north to the state line including all of the Hereford Zone), the school secretary estimates she gets about 100 visits a month from students who arrive in the morning hungry or who don’t get enough to eat while they are at school. Mondays are particularly bad because some children, usually those who are homeless or in poverty, have not eaten enough on the weekends.

School staff also struggle with seeing hunger. A friend of Second District (Owings Mills, Reisterstown & Pikesville) Councilwoman Vicki Almond quit her cafeteria job at a school in the area because most of her own money was going to feed hungry kids.

Not enough is being done to address this problem which is especially frustrating when not much is needed to make a big difference. For just an extra 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch per day, more than 7,500 Baltimore County students can worry about their math homework instead of where their next meal is coming from.

The benefits from such a small payout are substantial. Research shows that children who eat a good breakfast tend to perform better academically, have better attendance, exhibit fewer behavior problems and are more likely to graduate from high school (18 per cent higher rate). Also, children who eat a good breakfast develop healthy eating habits, visit the school nurse less frequently and are less likely to be obese.

With more local programs and a better partnership between Baltimore County school administrators and government officials in terms of funding and outreach, food insecurity can be eliminated among our school-age children. The relatively small investment today in additional food for students could save millions of dollars through reduced health care costs and the social and economic costs of not graduating from high school.

Your next meal

The high rate (47 percent) of Baltimore County students in poverty — 52,000 children lived in poverty during the 2015-2016 school year, according to information published by administrators for the Baltimore County Public Schools — underlies two major stressors affecting learning: hunger and food insecurity. Hunger is the physiological state of being hungry. Food insecurity is not necessarily hunger though the two are often intertwined. Food insecurity is defined as a chronic lack of access to nutritious food, or the insecurity of not knowing how or when you can get your next meal.

The most recent data (2014) shows that Baltimore County was estimated to have more than 32,2000 children and more than 100,000 adults who struggled with food insecurity, 12.6 percent of the county population — about one out of every eight citizens.

The figure of 32,200 food-insecure children is the third highest for any jurisdiction in Maryland. Even worse, about 45 percent of those 32,200 children in Baltimore County are not eligible for federal nutrition programs, such as Free and Reduced Price Meals (FARMS) in schools, because their family incomes exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, an income at 185 percent of the federal poverty level is a little less than $45,000 a year.

So, many low income families (below 300 percent of the federal poverty level which does not take into account differences in an area’s housing costs, etc.) make too much to qualify for assistance but not enough to be self-sufficient given Baltimore County’s high cost of living.

Confidentiality rules

Sometimes, just having the free and reduced meals available at schools isn’t enough. Many families don’t apply due to ignorance or pride for the program though they qualify. And many families simply cannot afford the additional $0.70 a day per child expense of reduced price meals.

During the 2016 General Assembly session in Annapolis, the “Free School Meals for Students from Low and Middle-Income Families Act,” was introduced which would have eliminated the ‘reduced’ price meals category. For just $2.5 million in state funds, more than 54,000 school children eligible for reduced meals would have had free access to breakfast and lunch in their schools. The measure failed.

For about $500,000 a year, Baltimore County public school administrators could eliminate the reduced price meal category for its approximately 7,500 students qualifying for this benefit. These are the same administrators spending $280-to-300 million dollars over the next few years on computers for every student in grades K-12.

Last fall, My Neighbors Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving Hereford Zone students of all economic levels, offered to pay the costs of reduced price meals for qualifying students in the Hereford Zone: at Hereford MS and HS, Sparks ES, Prettyboy ES, Seventh District, and Fifth District Elementary Schools. Less than $5,000 per year is needed to ensure the 36 students who are eligible could enjoy a good breakfast and lunch without any additional costs. (262 Hereford Zone students qualified for free meals at those schools in 2015, according to BCPS data.)

BCPS administrators cited strict federal rules on confidentiality for rejecting My Neighbors’s offer though at no time did the organization want to know or inadvertently identify any recipient. An account would be established at each school for funding reduced meal costs which would be replenished when depleted and administered by each school’s pupil personnel worker.

More Programs Are Needed

A few private programs are addressing hunger and food insecurity in Baltimore County schools. Food for Thought now operates in at least nine schools — including Loch Raven and Towson high schools as well as Padonia and Warren elementary schools — by providing backpacks of food for students over the weekend.

Food pantries such as the Hereford Food Bank, the Baltimore North Cluster Food Bank and the Assistance Center for Towson Churches also are great resources but staff and hours are limited. For example, the Hereford Food Bank (located behind Hereford UMC at York and Monkton roads) is open three days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-3 p.m. and Saturdays 9-11 a.m. The Baltimore North Cluster Food Bank (in Pine Grove Methodist Church on Middletown Road) is open Monday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – noon, and Wednesday, 5 p.m to 7 p.m.

The Baltimore North Cluster Food Bank currently serves about 50 families in the Hereford Zone. According to Joan Patterson, a co-director there, families qualifying for assistance can get food once a week.

Unfortunately, families are no longer visiting pantries to meet temporary, acute food needs. Instead, local food banks are now a part of households’ long-term strategies to supplement monthly shortfalls in food and families are relying on food pantries as a supplemental food source. Fortunately, research is showing that food bank use over longer durations may lower the likelihood of food insecurity.

Overcoming pride and embarrassment about having to ask for food is difficult for adults and schoolchildren, especially adolescents. More information about how widespread hunger and food insecurity are in Baltimore County can only help in outreach and encourage political pressure for action. In the state of Maryland (with the highest median income in the nation), in Baltimore County and in the Hereford Zone, hungry and food-insecure children in schools is unacceptable. We are not doing enough.

For more data statewide in interactive maps, visit http://map.feedingamerica.org/county/2014/overall/maryland/county/baltimore and http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/our-research/map-the-meal-gap/2014/MD_AllCounties_CDs_CFI_2014.pdf

TAGLINE

Dr. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell is a retired professor of art history at Hood College 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