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Maryland Leaders Ask for More Money for Free School Breakfast

Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin leads lawmakers calling for increased funding for a school breakfast program.

Nearly every student at Roscoe Nix Elementary in Silver Spring eats a free and nutritionally balanced breakfast. Teachers serve hot meals in the classroom before the first bell instead of in the usually busy cafeteria.

It's an unconventional approach to feeding students, but one that Montgomery County lawmakers hope will become the norm in more schools.

County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin joined students and members of the Maryland General Assembly Wednesday to tout the success of the Maryland Meals for Achievement program at schools like Roscoe Nix. She penned a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery that calls for an additional $1.8 million in funding to put the program in 130 additional schools throughout the state.

Advocates of free meal programs say access to food may increase student achievement. Ervin, joined by state delegates and senators from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said that increasing poverty in the suburbs makes the programs more necessary.

"Providing nutritious meals is one of the most immediate and cost-effective ways to improve a child's health and performance in the classroom," said Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.

The breakfast program reimburses eligible schools for the money spent on providing universal breakfast, said Anne Sheridan, Maryland director of the "No Kid Hungry Campaign" at nonprofit Share Our Strength. To be eligible, schools must have a certain percentage of their students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. 

More than 47,000 children in Montgomery County are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, Ervin said. Under current funding, only 40 schools in the county are working with the program, although 80 are eligible.

In Prince George's County, where 70,000 students live below the federal poverty line, 27 schools are part of the program this school year, although more than 150 are eligible.

If approved, the additional $1.8 million would go toward fully funding the program over the next five years. Ervin also hopes to lower the criteria for schools to become eligible, something that Montgomery County Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay said is a problem when a hungry child attends a school that doesn't meet the standards for funding.

"If there's a child hungry at any classroom in our state, we need to make sure that they have breakfast," said Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park.

At Roscoe Nix, where 68 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced meals, tardiness has plummeted in the four years that students have been offered breakfast in the classroom, principal Annette Ffolkes said. Students are eager to get to class in time to eat, she said. Teachers also report that students are more attentive.

Ffolkes said that there's an additional peace of mind to the breakfast as well.

"The concern that we have that many of our students, the meals that they have here in school may be the only meals that they have during the day," she said. "So we want to make sure that they at least have something to start the day with."

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