The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Every Maryland child deserves healthy meals — at no charge

A lunch at Oxon Hill High School in Oxon Hill on Oct. 26, 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
4 min

Adam Zimmerman is a communications consultant who lives in Rockville.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) recently updated its policy regarding student meal debt. Among other changes, students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals will not be required to repay debt. MCPS’s superintendent can pursue private donations to reduce the amount families owe. And a proposal requiring students in debt to receive an alternate meal — which invites stigma and abuse — was shelved.

The new plan is an improvement. But the fact that it is needed at all is an abomination. If all students received school meals at no charge, school meal debt would not exist. Indeed, federal waivers have permitted schools nationwide to do just that over the past two years. But though we have known for months that the federal government would not extend those waivers past their June 30 expiration date, state and local officials in Maryland have not done enough to mitigate the inevitable consequences to children’s health and learning. Regardless of family income, no child should ever have to pay for school meals.

The severe job loss, loss of wages and school closures that marked the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic sparked a surge of food insecurity nationwide. To their credit, Congress and the Agriculture Department have stepped up. Since 2020, every child has been eligible for school meals at no charge, and schools have received higher reimbursement rates. The waivers kept a bad situation from becoming far worse.

Allowing the waivers to expire now is terrible timing; participation rates in school meal programs are still down considerably from pre-pandemic totals, and school food-service departments are still contending with major financial disruptions, staff shortages and supply-chain issues. But ending school meals for all would be bad at any time, given the significant long-term benefits they provide, including lower rates of food insecurity, improved diets, better school performance and more money for schools.

California and Maine have passed legislation to continue providing school meals at no charge after the federal waivers expire. With nearly 200,000 children in Maryland, including 60,000 in Montgomery County, experiencing food insecurity, it is unconscionable that we have not followed suit. Legislation to this effect introduced in the General Assembly went nowhere. Our state lawmakers managed to find $1.2 billion to finance upgrades to Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore but were unwilling to commit the $27 million investment necessary for every child in our state to receive school lunch at no charge next year. For shame.

State lawmakers must right that wrong, but local officials must act as well. If localities do not have the funds to fully cover the cost of all school meals — and they should look in every crevice and under every rock to find those dollars — there are still several steps that are well within their reach, including:

Covering the cost of unpaid school meal debt. According to the MCPS Education Foundation, one-third of schools in Montgomery County accrue at least $2,500 in school meal debt in a given year, with some schools averaging more than $10,000. Students should not be forced to hope that wealthy benefactors or philanthropists can come to their rescue. Public dollars should cover the cost of public school meal debt.

Participating in the Community Eligibility Provision. Under CEP, schools or districts with more than 40 percent of children in families from low incomes may serve meals to all students at no charge. More than 171,000 Maryland students attended schools participating in Community Eligibility during the 2020-2021 school year, but fewer than 75 percent of eligible districts in Maryland have adopted CEP. Every eligible school district should make participation a priority.

Making it easier for families to apply for free school meals. The USDA released income eligibility guidelines for free and reduced-price meals for the 2022-2023 school year in February, but they are inexplicably not featured on MCPS’s food and nutrition service website. Paper applications for free and reduced-price meals, typically sent home after the school year has begun, should be distributed over the summer, instead. Districts should provide free assistance to help families fill them out by hand or electronically.

Imagine forcing a child to pay an extra fee to walk through the schoolhouse door. Making any child or family pay for school meals — when that meal is as important to their health, education and well-being as anything they learn in the classroom — is a similarly absurd notion. School meals for all were a long time coming. Now that they is here, and we have seen the impact in Maryland and beyond, we should not let them go.