In Baltimore City and in Baltimore, Dorchester and Somerset counties, every child can get a healthy school meal for free, without paperwork submitted by their parents and without the stigma of being labeled as poor. If you need a meal, you get a meal, no questions asked. In the remaining 20 Maryland school systems, this is not the case.

The need for free school meals is quite simple, even though it is being debated in our General Assembly this winter. It has been well-documented that learning and development are impeded by hunger. Well-fed schoolchildren learn better and are less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors that are distracting to their peers. Children from families with lower incomes and who belong to racial or ethnic minority groups are more likely to suffer from hunger compared to higher income or non-Hispanic white families.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, education reform legislation that state lawmakers passed in 2021, unfortunately overlooked this key ingredient of academic success. But with some Marylanders facing hunger and children living in more than one-third of the households receiving SNAP benefits, we cannot talk about any services for children — especially education — without including food in the conversation.

The Blueprint was designed to eradicate achievement gaps and ensure opportunities for every student, regardless of family income, race, ethnicity or ability. Its policies incorporate five pillars that focus on:

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  • expanding access to quality early childhood education
  • recruiting and retaining high-quality, diverse teachers and leaders
  • ensuring high school graduates are college- and/or career-ready
  • expanding the footprint of community schools in areas with greatest need
  • implementation oversight via governance and accountability

A key “sixth pillar” is missing from this legislation: access to healthy meals in all schools for all students. This missing pillar is based on decades of education and health research. It promotes both academic achievement and health for all students, especially those from lower-income families or communities, thereby promoting equity and closing the achievement gap. Access to healthy food should be the priority when providing basic educational needs. Instead, it was left out entirely.

The current school meal programs provide healthy, balanced meals based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Many of the meals provided to students are free, based on individual eligibility (when parents submit forms for each of their students) or if the community as a whole meets specific criteria. Participation in the community eligibility provision (called CEP) is at the discretion of the school system.

So far, only the four Maryland school systems named above participate in CEP along with select schools in 13 other systems. But at least 11 other school systems and 79 more schools are eligible. Yet, CEP participation — directly linked to reduced hunger, improved attendance, fewer behavior problems and better dietary outcomes — has not been a priority.

Today, our state legislators are considering stand-alone legislation (HB 696 and SB 579) to provide healthy school meals for all of Maryland’s children, often called “universal meals.” During 2020 and 2021, the American Rescue Plan provided flexibility for all schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. Unfortunately, this flexibility expired in the fall of 2022, and now, in 2024, once again, Maryland students are facing food insecurity, meal debt-shaming and stigmatization.

Maryland schools are also facing mounting school meal debt, a growing challenge among school districts nationwide. This debt occurs when a student arrives to the cafeteria without funds to purchase a meal. If this student is not certified to receive a free meal, then the student will accrue debt.

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In a recent report on school year 2022-23, 78% of the school systems in Maryland Public Schools had unpaid school meal debt. Montgomery County, with one of the wealthier constituencies in the state, had to set up a separate foundation to pay for the $700,000 in school meal debt from school year 2022-23. Schools and school systems are not prepared to cover this debt, leaving it to the cafeteria managers and food service departments to sort out through cost-saving measures in the meal programs.

Fixing this problem has a price tag, of course. General funds are available to cover the cost, as long as political will exists. The cost could also be offset by a tax on tobacco, alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages or sugary snacks. Ultimately, we need our representatives to speak out in support of healthy school meals for all and find a way to pay for such a guarantee so that our students and their schools do not need to foot the bill for a basic need for learning.

Maryland is often seen as a progressive state when it comes to smart, evidence-based public health policy. Yet, nine states have already adopted universal meals policies before Maryland has even begun to consider it. Maryland legislators need to take action: Vote for HB 696 and SB 579 and find the political will to cover the cost to support health and academic achievement for all of Maryland’s children, particularly the most vulnerable.

Erin Hager (associate professor) and Susan Gross (associate practice professor) are faculty members in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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