Baltimore County's school system, the only one in Maryland that doesn't offer a free or reduced-price breakfast to every needy student, is not complying with a state law by providing families with nutrition counseling instead, the attorney general has concluded.
State law requires a breakfast program at every school that has enough students from low- and moderate-income families to qualify for federal aid under the Chapter I program. The county has 45 such schools.
The law does not specifically state that a free breakfast must be served, although every other school system does so. School systems can offer an alternative program if it is approved by the Department of Education.
The Maryland Food Committee, which has been protesting the county's policy, had asked for a ruling from the attorney general on whether the counseling program met the state requirements.
State School Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling, who announced his resignation Tuesday, responded to the ruling by informing county school officials in a letter March 26 that he will not grant an exemption next year for their current program.
"The office of the attorney general does not feel that Baltimore County'salternative breakfast program and its results sufficiently meet the legal requirements of the statute," Dr. Shilling wrote.
He made it clear that he would like the county to begin serving free breakfasts, but said if it insists on continuing with an alternative program, it must be a better one and will have to be approved by his office.
"While I would strongly urge you to consider making a school breakfast program available by the beginning of the 1991-1992 school year, I also respect the long-term goals of your alternative program effort," Dr. Shilling wrote.
Schools Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel said he still believed his way was best, and he was angry that members of the Maryland Food Committee had provided a copy of the letter to The Sun yesterday.
Dr. Dubel said he would not begin offering a free breakfast at all of the 45 schools but would try to revise the program to satisfy state officials.
The upcoming departure of Dr. Shilling should not change the state's demands that Baltimore County improve its program or start offering free breakfasts, said Shelly Terry, chief of the state Department of Education's nutrition and transportation service office.
Rachel Wohl, who represented the Maryland Food Committee in its campaign to get the school system to offer free breakfasts, said nutrition counseling is worthwhile -- but not an alternative to feeding hungry children.
"Dubel has a '50s, sort of a 'Father Knows Best,' Ward Cleaver outlook," said Ms. Wohl.
Under Baltimore County's program, county students are asked twice a year to fill out a survey on whether they are eating breakfast. Administrators also try to identify hungry children through observation.
If the children are not eating breakfast, school administrators counsel families on the importance of the morning meal. If that fails, each school comes up with an individual plan to offer the child something to eat in the morning.
Each year, "approximately 2,500 kids answer the Baltimore County survey saying they are hungry at least two days a week and would like to have breakfast," said Andrew Freeman, a lawyer for the food committee.