August 23, 2022

For many students in Maryland, the back-to-school season is an exciting time of reconnecting with old friends, meeting new teachers, and shopping for school supplies. But for families struggling with food insecurity, the start of school may also bring an added sense of relief in knowing that their children will have access to a critical resource typically not available over the summer — healthy free school meals.

During the school year, programs like the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, and the free and reduced-price meal program, serve as the first line of defense against food insecurity, helping to shield children from going through the day hungry in the classroom, while also providing added benefits such as improved academic achievement, attendance, and classroom behavior.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 pandemic-related waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have allowed school meals to be served at no cost in Maryland and across the nation, no matter a family’s income level. This program helps mitigate the alarming spikes in food insecurity caused by COVID-19 and provides a much-needed lifeline to struggling families and children.

However, despite the proven benefits of providing meals to all students at no cost, these pandemic era provisions are coming to an end. When students return to school this fall, the school meal programs will be returning to the traditional tiered payment system. More barriers, like cost and stigma, will prevent students from accessing nutritious meals during the school day, and more families and school systems will be forced to deal with the burden of school meal debt.

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly bypassed a piece of legislation that would have provided free school meals during the 2022–2023 school year and in schools in low-income communities permanently. By overlooking that important opportunity, Maryland legislators missed the chance to ensure no student in the state would fall through the cracks in the coming school year.

Although previous legislation ensures that students in the reduced-price category will now receive school meals for free, this fall will no doubt be a difficult time for many families struggling to make ends meet without the security of knowing their children’s nutritional needs will be taken care of at school.

With a long-awaited Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill on the horizon in Congress, now is a critical time for advocates and stakeholders to come together for a better future for students by continuing to advocate for Healthy School Meals for All in Maryland.

Some of the ways to support this cause are:

Join the movement for a more equitable school meals system in Maryland so that all children are ensured barrier-free access to the healthy meals they need to grow and thrive.