Starting this week all Baltimore City public school students will get free meals, but the school officials and advocates agree the meals need to continue to improve in quality and nutrition
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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Starting this week, all Baltimore City school students can eat for free. Thanks to a new state law, the Hunger Free Schools Act, the school district qualifies for a federal program making breakfast and lunches available for no cost. Baltimore State Delegate Keith Haynes was a lead sponsor of the bill, and says this is great news. BALTIMORE STATE DELEGATE KEITH HAYNES: It’s a great equalizer among all students, regardless of the demographics in their income. So every student may be able to eat their meals free. NOOR: Some 84 percent of Baltimore City public school students already qualified for free or reduced lunches, but they had to apply on an individual basis. The new law removes the application hurdle. Elizabeth Marchetta is a manager of Food and Nutrition Services at City Schools. ELIZABETH MARCHETTA, FOOD AND NUTRITION SERVICES: You know, we’re putting a burden on children to have to prove that they’re poor so that they can receive free meals. What’s wonderful about this program is it takes that burden off of students to have to bring in that application, to have to prove that they are in need. NOOR: It also ensures districts don’t lose state funding, a portion of which is determined by the number of students who sought free or reduced meals. Many have also questioned the quality of school meals. We stopped by the Pigtown Farmers’ Market and spoke to students about what they’re offered at school. STUDENT: We get, like, cereal, and we get, like, toast. STUDENT: Maybe burgers. French fries, corn. STUDENT: Like the little packets with the cinnamon rolls in it. STUDENT: Strawberries and grapes. STUDENT: Pizza, salads. STUDENT: We get, like, strawberries and fruit and stuff, but we can’t do that anymore, because there’s, like, budget cuts. NOOR: City officials and advocates agree that school meals have improved of late, but there continues to be room for improvement. The campaign to improve these meals gathered momentum in 2012. The USDA issued new guidelines for healthier foods. Studies have consistently found students who eat balanced meals have better grades, attendance, and memory. MARCHETTA: We think that those are really positive changes. They require [inaud.] of vegetables to be offered to students. They require that whole grains are, meals are whole [inaud.] rich, 51 percent or greater. They require sort of types and colors of vegetables, and it’s [inaud.] NOOR: Michael J Wilson is the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a food justice advocacy group that monitors the meals at city schools. MICHAEL J WILSON, MARYLAND HUNGER SOLUTIONS: The other part that is often unstated is that they are healthier than the meals that most kids get at home. MARCHETTA: A quarter of city school students live in what is defined as a food desert, and we know that school meals are often the healthiest meal that students have access to. WILSON: What they get at home, I’m not trying to judge parents or parents’ ability or willingness to give kids healthy meals, is not the same as what they’ll get at school. NOOR: There’s also work being done to address where school food comes from. MARCHETTA: You guys are located in Maryland, so you’re familiar with the growing season, and the fact that the majority of the growing on Maryland farms happens when school is out, during the summertime. That being said, we really tried to work and find vendors that are able to provide us with local products. The past, last school year, we served more than 750,000 pounds of locally grown produce. NOOR: Haynes says he and others are working to address the issues of poverty that also prevent youth from getting food while outside of school as well. HAYNES: Be it the summer, or throughout the school year when there are breaks, we understand that there are those–there are gaps when they may not receive those nutritious meals. And so I guess that’s part, too, of what we look at and try to make sure there’s full coverage. NOOR: For The Real News, Jaisal Noor, Baltimore.
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