Juwan Blocker is lobbying on an issue near and dear to his heart: addressing childhood hunger. Blocker is no stranger to governmental advocacy. He served as the student member for the Prince George’s County Board of Education while in high school, and formerly ran for the Board of Education himself. Now a Charles County resident, he is still using his legislative contacts and knowledge to help children at underserved schools across the state.
“As a former Student Member of the School Board, I’ve seen directly the impact that not having the opportunity to eat breakfast can take on the productivity of students across the day,” he said. “I was a Free and Reduced School Meals (FARMS) student and my school had over 40% FARMS students, and the negative impact was clear every day.”
Ayesha Holmes is leading the No Kid Hungry Campaign. Blocker is working alongside her to ensure the passage of a bill to expand meals for students in low-income schools.
Maryland Meals for Achievement (MMFA) was established in 1998 and propelled the state to be a leader in providing equitable access to breakfast for children in communities with high rates of poverty.
HB-514, introduced by Montgomery County Delegate Jared Solomon (D- District 18), seeks to build upon that program. This bill will be heard on Feb. 28 in front of the Appropriations Committee at 1 p.m.
Half of the schools in Prince George’s County that currently qualify for free meals do not have funding for “breakfast after the bell,” allowing students to eat a meal during the first period. Holmes noted that this funding must be reallocated annually by the state legislature.
The new legislation increases funding for this program from $7.5 million to $12 million. By adding $4.5 million dollars, the General Assembly will ensure that all eligible schools that choose to participate will be funded. According to Holmes, this bill must be re-appropriated each year.
“This year, there are a significant number of schools ready to take this on,” she said.
Qualifying schools must have a 40% FARMS rate. One of those schools is Blocker’s alma mater, Parkdale High School. A 2021 data analysis of the FARMS system in Maryland shows that 61% of students in Prince George’s County Public Schools are eligible for the program.
In Blocker’s words, “HB-514 is a step further to ensure equality, ensuring that those kids that are in underserved communities have an opportunity to eat breakfast so that they can be productive throughout the school day.”
Holmes emphasized that breakfast after the bell improves attendance and leads to positive outcomes for youth.
Feeding America, a network of food banks, found that over 9,000,000 children in America faced hunger in 2021, over 1 out of every 8 children. The Maryland Food Bank reports that 1 in 3 Marylanders is food insecure, largely due to Maryland’s high cost of living and stagnant wages. Government programs and food banks that were accessible during the early stages of the pandemic have diminished, leading to what Holmes calls a “hunger cliff.”
Holmes is also working on a bill to provide universal breakfast and lunch for children in Maryland schools that would complement MMFA, but not replace it.
“There is no one size fits all meal program for children. The schools in neighborhoods with greatest needs, must offer a breakfast program that reaches children and allows for full participation, which MMFA is proven to do,” as MMFA is particularly targeted to low-income schools.