SILVER SPRING — 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 the usual busy cafeteria.
It's an unconventional approach to feeding students, but one that lawmakers from Montgomery County hope will become the norm in more schools.
Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) joined students and members of the Maryland General Assembly Wednesday to promote the success of the Maryland Meals for Achievement program at schools like Roscoe Nix. She penned a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley 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 both Montgomery and Prince George's counties, said that increasing poverty in the suburbs makes the programs more necessary now.
"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.
The breakfast program reimburses eligible schools for the money spent on providing universal breakfast, according to 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 reduced or free meals.
More than 47,000 children in Montgomery County are eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMS), an increase of more than 25 percent, according to a statement from the Ervin. Under the current funding level for the program, 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 would be 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.
At Roscoe Nix, where 68 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced meals, school principal Annette Ffolkes said that tardiness has plummeted in the four years that her students have been offered breakfast in the classroom. 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."