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When children are hungry, they miss more days of school, their academic performance worsens and they have more discipline problems. Maine has the highest child hunger rate in New England and one in five of the state’s children faces food insecurity. And, although free and reduced-price meals are available at K-12 schools, too many eligible students don’t participate. In addition, families who don’t qualify for assistance may still struggle to provide nutritious food or to pay for school meals.
Fortunately, this has been addressed during the pandemic as school meals are available to all students, regardless of their ability to pay. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it will extend this program through the next school year.
There is a proposal in the Maine Legislature, LD 1679, to continue universal school meals in Maine beyond 2022.
Senate President Troy Jackson, the sponsor of the bill, shared his own experiences as a child who was hungry at school with the Bangor Daily News Editorial Board. Although his family wasn’t well off, Jackson said he didn’t qualify for free or reduced-prices lunches. Sometimes he didn’t have money to pay for a school lunch so he simply didn’t eat that day.
Then, during the pandemic he noticed that nearly every house he drove past had a cooler outside for the meals that school staff and volunteers brought to students homes or to drop-off locations to ensure that Maine children received nutritious meals during the day.
That’s when he wondered why the state didn’t just feed all school kids to take away the stressors of hunger and the shame that often comes with receiving a free lunch or not having the money to pay for a lunch when a student didn’t bring one from home.
Maine has passed laws to eliminate so-called lunch shaming, such as giving sandwiches rather than hot lunches to students who are behind on paying their lunch bills.
LD 1679 would go much further by simply providing meals to all K-12 Maine students.
As Justin Strasburger, executive director of Full Plate Full Potential, noted to the editorial board that schools already provide transportation to and from school, and often extra-curricular activities, to all students who need it. All middle and high school students receive laptops or tablets. These are provided without regard to the ability of students’ families to pay for them.
The same should be true of school meals, which provide many benefits that extend beyond the school boundaries. Many developed countries already do this.
Numerous studies have found that when kids are fed at school, their academic performance is improved. This is true for both children who are poor and those who are not. Ensuring that students have healthy meals at school also improves attendance and reduces disciplinary problems. For many children, of any income bracket, school meals are often the most healthy food they consume each day.
The benefits of school meals last long after the children have graduated from high school.
The federal school lunch program was begun in 1946 after Congress learned that millions of American men didn’t qualify for the draft because of poor health and hunger-related issues.
Similar logic should push lawmakers, in Maine and nationally, to again update the act to address continuing child hunger concerns.
The pre-pandemic school food program was missing far too many children. In Maine, 60 percent of eligible children received free or reduced-price lunches; only 43 percent participated in the breakfast program. These numbers increased a bit during the pandemic, but too many children are still left out.
The detailed paperwork that families must fill out, which requires them to disclose their income, is one reason more families don’t participate. Some families don’t fill out this form because of the stigma attached to being poor and eligible for help from the government. To participate in school-run summer meals programs, paperwork must be turned in before the end of this school year.
Making school meals universally available removes this paperwork burden. It will also free up school nutrition departments to focus on feeding students rather than tracking who has submitted paperwork and tracking down families that are behind in paying for school meals.
For these many reasons, making meals at schools available to all students would be a wise investment.