BERLIN – Maryland First Lady Katie O’Malley dished out pepperoni pizza, made with whole grain wheat, carrots and advice on eating healthy to Summer Academy students at Buckingham Elementary School (BES) in Berlin on Tuesday morning.
“Just try a few of them. You don’t have to eat them all,” O’Malley urged the BES students lined up at the lunch counter.
O’Malley spoke to the children during lunch about the importance of eating right.
“When you wake up in the morning, what’s the most important thing you can do?” O’Malley asked. “Eat something nutritious so your brain can start working when you come to school.”
The children at BES are beneficiaries of a state initiative called the Summer Food Service Program, which offers free healthy meals outside the school year.
“Especially during these tough economic times, families are struggling to make ends meet, and far too many kids aren’t getting the nutrition they need,” O’Malley said in a statement. “Too often, kids from the most vulnerable families go to school hungry and go to bed hungry. And for many kids throughout Maryland and across the country school breakfasts and lunches are their main source of consistent nourishment.”
Fifty-six percent of BES’s student body qualifies for free or reduced lunches. Overall in Worcester County, 36 percent of county students are eligible for free or reduced meals.
All children at BES also get free breakfast, part of the Maryland Meals for Achievement initiative.
At BES Tuesday, O’Malley teased the students about their food preferences.
“I had a lot of opposition to the carrots this afternoon,” O’Malley said. “You seemed okay with the pizza.”
Answering a question from a student, O’Malley revealed that her favorite vegetable is spinach, while also being impressed with the behavior of the students in general.
“I’m proud of you. You seem to be one of the most well behaved schools I’ve been throughout the state … You’re very, very good kids,” O’Malley said.
Children need to know about good nutrition and eating healthy foods as early as possible, said O’Malley, for lifetime health.
“No one performs at their best when they are hungry. At Buckingham, we make sure our children are well fed before moving on to teaching and learning,” said BES Principal Roger Pacella.
The O’Malley administration’s commitment to good nutrition for children combines with the administration’s partnership with a national hunger fighting organization to end child hunger in the state of Maryland.
Last fall, Governor Martin O’Malley announced a partnership with Share Our Strength, a nationwide non-profit organization working to eliminate child hunger, with the goal to be first state in the U.S. to end childhood hunger.
The plan is to connect more families with children at risk to existing but under-used federal programs, like School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, the Child and Adult Care Food Programs, the Summer Food Service Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as the food stamp program.
“Our strategy to end childhood hunger is based on closing the gaps between existing public and private programs and the families who need them,” said Share Our Strength founder Billy Shore when the partnership was announced. “In Maryland, as in many states, these programs are often under-utilized, keeping kids from getting three nutritious meals a day. This partnership will identify and close those gaps, making sure that no child in Maryland grows up hungry.”
Local food banks have seen an increase in demand since last fall, in some cases doubling the number of requests for food assistance. Most of those requesting food are families, with one or more children, said Diakonia homeless shelter and food bank director Claudia Nagle.
Some children who go hungry are not reflected in school free and reduced meals usage numbers, since their parents make too much money for the children to be eligible for those benefits, but still struggle to put food on the table.
“When 70 percent of your income is spent on housing, it doesn’t leave much for food,” said Nagle.
Worcester Countians struggle with high rental housing costs, compounded by high unemployment, and the lowest average weekly wage in the state of Maryland. According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average weekly wage in Worcester County is $494. Wicomico County averages $666 per week, while Somerset County averages $705. The national average is $841.
People also may not participate in hunger relieving programs because they do not think they are the audience for the program.
“I think people know it’s out there,” said Nagle. “I don’t think they realize that they might qualify.”