Voltaggio advocates for school breakfasts

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Frederick chef Bryan Voltaggio has more than his share of experience with hungry people, and Monday he shared a bit of what he knows with state lawmakers.

The co-owner of VOLT wasn’t in Annapolis to discuss fine dining, though. Instead, he spoke about a Maryland program that works to make sure school children start their day with full stomachs.

“As a chef, it’s really hard to see that children are hungry,” he said in an interview before he testified to a Maryland House of Delegates subcommittee. “I provide food to guests, so I should be able to provide food to children.”

Maryland Meals for Achievement is a powerful way to combat hunger, offering nutritious, free breakfasts to students in their classrooms, he said. The project targets schools where 40 percent or more students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, including seven in Frederick County.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed budget for fiscal 2013 offers $3.38 million to the program, a $560,000 raise from last year. The additional money would allow the program to expand to about 45 more schools; in the 2011-2012 school year, budget constraints meant the program could serve only 228 of 780 eligible schools.

Citing state fiscal challenges, legislative analysts recommended raising the contribution by only $280,000 in fiscal 2013, but Voltaggio and other program supporters urged lawmakers to follow O’Malley’s proposal.

“It bothers me that we live in a country of such great wealth, and we can’t feed our own children,” Voltaggio said during his testimony.

Student performance in Maryland assessments rose at schools served by meals for achievement, while tardiness and suspension length sank, according to a 2001 state evaluation cited by program backers.

Although other initiatives provide school breakfasts, meals for achievement is special because it gives food to students in their classrooms, serving it to everyone regardless of family income.

This blanket approach helps lessen the hesitation a child might feel to eat a free breakfast, Voltaggio and others pointed out.

“When a school introduces MMFA, it finds it has a big jump in its breakfast participation,” said Anne Sheridan, director of the Maryland anti-hunger campaign for the group Share Our Strength. “And guess what? That means they have a better start to the school day and overall better academic performance.”

Voltaggio has worked with Share Our Strength for about seven years, but became more focused on the organization after the birth of his son, Thacher, now 4.

He said thinking about his children helped motivate him to travel to Annapolis to support for meals for achievement.

“I couldn’t even imagine — being a father, and also compacted by being a chef — that a child is hungry,” he said.

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