By Anindya Kundu
It seems like Baltimore realizes that factors outside of classroom walls can affect the learning of children. This month Baltimore, Md. became among the first districts in the country to adopt a universal free meals program, offering all students breakfast and lunch everyday.
While the rest of the country continues to talk a big game about providing opportunity for students, Baltimore has taken a step further and put its money where its mouth is. Its time other districts follow suit.
The American education system is full of promises, many of which are indeed kept. Public school remains one of the lone American guarantees for everyone. We mandate access to public education for illegal immigrants and even homeless students.
There are 1.2 million homeless students in the U.S., with approximately 76,000 of them living alone without parents or guardians. There is no doubt that our open access policies help these kids stay away from danger and out of trouble by keeping them in school.
Still, access and the opening of school does not equal opportunity, and the ability of all students to achieve once inside. By acknowledging this, and taking hunger out of the equation of things that can inhibit children from achieving, Baltimore and a handful of other Maryland districts have come closer to balancing the two sides. These districts are taking a new approach to view the social contexts that also affect their students’ lives.
For instance, many poor students trudge to school through “food deserts,” a term coined in the social sciences. Rather than pass grocery stores with nutritious options, these children routinely walk by greater numbers of liquor stores and convenience stores selling candy and chips. Not only are these students less likely to have complete meals before leaving home, they are also the same ones most often fidgety and disruptive in classrooms.
By enacting a social policy aimed at curbing these disparities, Baltimore has disallowed such issues from becoming excuses for underachievement. In effect, they have raised their own stakes and accountability for success and done so by first supporting their schools by allowing them to focus on teaching.
Will we really need to wait until Baltimore’s numbers come out to consider that they might have done the right thing here?
Policies like free meals in schools could be considered cheap in the grand scheme of things. And they are the best kind of solution: They are preventative. They may help us grow the leaders today who we will need to fix tomorrow’s problems.
Many of our disadvantaged students already have a lot on their plate to deal with. It might be time to help share some of their burdens, and fill their plates with the types of real sustenance and nourishment needed to succeed.