Underprivileged Elementary Schools Receive Free Meals Grant for Students–but Teachers Eat the Food | News

by Nindo Mom on April 6, 2011

About 2 weeks ago, my son brought home a letter stating that his elementary school had been chosen by the Maryland State Department of Education to participate in the Meals for Achievement (MMFA) program. Through the program, all students would be served breakfast in their classrooms–free of charge, regardless of income. The program would last through the end of the school year.

The program commenced on March 21–and breakfast was served. it was cold cereal. Milk was offered, as was juice. In the baggie holding the mini bowl of cereal, an additional snack was included–either a small bag of goldfish crackers or a couple of graham crackers.

A few days after the program, I started receiving reports that the teachers at the school were helping themselves to the breakfast, as well. And the reports have continued every day since.

Now, about 2 weeks into the program, the breakfast offered has been exactly the same every day: a mini bowl of cold cereal with a pack of crackers, milk, and juice. Except that for the last several days, fat free milk is no longer being offered–at least, not in my son’s classroom. And when my son asked if he might be able to have some, he was told that the teachers were not controlling what food was being offered and no request was made to get any skim milk–that day or any day that followed.

What concerns me the most is that the teachers are eating food provided by a state grant to feed THE CHILDREN breakfast. According to a document released by www.marylandhungersolutions.org explaining the Maryland Meals for Achievement (MMFA) program, schools that have more than 40 percent enrollment in the free and reduced fee lunch program are eligible to participate in the MMFA program. (The program is targeting students from low income families.) The document also states that the breakfasts are offered to all STUDENTS at participating schools regardless of income–to help the neediest students avoid the negative stigma that often goes along with receiving a free (or reduced price) meal. Not once did the document refer to teachers receiving the benefit of the meals.

Based on the evidence I’ve seen, teachers consuming food provided for student consumption is an unauthorized use of the MMFA grant money.

To find out how much money could be being wasted by this misappropriation, I did a simple calculation. According to the documentation, 196 schools across Maryland benefited from MMFA funding during the 2007-2008 school year. (Since I don’t have a figure for 2010-2011, let’s just go with the older figure, for the purposes of this example.) With a start date of March 21, 2011, and lasting till the end of the school year, we’re looking at about 60 school days. My son has seen 3 teachers eating the breakfasts. Assuming that there are only 3 teachers consuming the breakfasts at each of 196 schools in Maryland each day–and this would be stretching the imagination–that would mean that (196 x 3, or 588) free breakfasts meant for students would be eaten by teachers. Multiply this number by 60, and you’ve got 35,280 free breakfasts served over a 60-day period to teachers, instead of students.

Now, to calculate the cost for the 35,280 breakfasts, let’s assume the cost of the cereal bowl plus milk is $1.15–the price charged an elementary school student for breakfast in Maryland (middle school students pay $1.30). We’ll guess the cost of the juice is $.50–the same price as an extra milk would be. And the crackers, we’ll guess at another $.50–they’re not on the school breakfast/lunch menu, so this is an educated guess. These numbers ($1.15 + .50 + .50) = $2.15 per meal. Multiply this number times 35,280 and you get $75,852 in MMFA grant money going to feeding the teachers. And that’s assuming just 3 teachers per school.

According to the documentation, only one third of all eligible schools were able to receive MMFA funding for free breakfasts for students in 2007-2008 because the state of Maryland simply did not have enough money. And the funding for the program was to be reduced by 10 percent for 2009-2010 school year.  This means that for every dollar wasted on breakfasts eaten by teachers instead of students, there was that much less funding to pay for breakfasts for other students at underprivileged schools. So the teachers were effectively taking food right out of students’ mouths.

And it gets worse. According to the Maryland Hunger Solutions document referenced earlier, Maryland schools receive funding for serving breakfast to children entitled to free ($1.35 per child) and reduced price ($1.05 per child)  breakfasts. And schools receive an additional $.26/child at schools where at least 40 percent of lunches were free or reduced price. What does all this mean? That when a teacher eats a breakfast intended for students through the MMFA program, those teachers are not only using up grant money not intended for them–they’re adding to the tally of breakfasts served at their school, which in turn (inappropriately) increases the amount of Federal funding their school will receive.

I do not claim to be a financial guru of any kind, and I may not have all the facts–but from what I’ve seen here, it’s clear that teachers working at schools participating in the MMFA program must immediately stop eating the free meals intended for students. It’s taking food out of children’s mouths–and it may be causing misappropriation of (Federal? State? Private?) funding.

May 3 UPDATE:

To confirm that teachers are not permitted to eat food intended for disadvantaged students, I contacted a staff specialist at the school and nutrition branch of the Maryland State Department of Education. That individual told me that only in very limited cases, and in very specific situations, is this ever permitted. The specialist then asked me the name of the school in question so that she could check the program rules for that specific school. I gave her the school name.

A few days passed, and she never got back to me. I sent three additional emails requesting that she follow up with me–not once did she respond. HOWEVER: by the following week, my son reported that the teachers in his classroom had stopped eating the breakfasts. A week after that, and he reported that one of the teachers was asked by a student why they weren’t having breakfast if they were hungry. “Because we’re not allowed,” the teacher said–apparently, with an attitude.

So my suspicions were correct. Unfortunately, the individual listed as a contact for the program at the Maryland State Department of Education refused to respond to my questions once she had gotten the name of the “offending” school out of me. Before that, she had always responded within the hour. Too bad this person decided the taxpaying public didn’t have the right to know the truth–and decided to blow me off.

MAY 12 UPDATE

The principal of the school pulled me aside today and informed me that she had been contacted from someone at the state level regarding the breakfast fiasco.

Apparently, the situation had turned out to be somewhat embarrassing for her because she had been unaware that her teachers had been eating the breakfasts intended for the students. Someone had come to the school to speak with the staff about the situation–and what was considered appropriate behavior in these situations.

The principal also told me that what had happened was that the teachers would take the cereal only after all of their classes had been served; however, what my son told me contradicted that. He told me that there was more than one occasion where the teachers would serve each other just as the first students to enter the classroom were still still unpacking their things for the day.

I’m still puzzled as to why the contact person publicized on the Maryland State Board of Education felt it was acceptable to refuse to respond to my numerous inquires as soon as she got an answer out of me as to the specific school that was (apparently) breaking the rules. Last time I checked, our government is supposed to work FOR us, the tax-paying citizens, and doesn’t have the option to refuse to answer questions about how they operate. Otherwise, what are my taxes (and the taxes of other Maryland residents) paying for? Secrecy? Come on, we’re not talking about national security, here.

Questions? Comments?

I welcome discussion on this matter from any interested parties–including members from the Board of Education that are interested in contributing. Please feel free to leave comments, or any additional information you may have. I have only presented the info as I understand it, and realize there may be additional perspectives that Nindomom readers would like to hear.

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