Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, covers his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the Augusta Civic Center. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to provide school meals free to all Maine K-12 students sailed through the state Senate on Monday, putting it in good position for passage though it carries a steep price tag that lawmakers will have to work into a complex budget process.

The bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would require the state to pay for the cost of breakfast and lunch served at schools regardless of a child’s economic status. It would do so by paying the difference between the federal reimbursement for free and reduced meals and paying the full price. It received a unanimous vote in the Senate and now heads to the Maine House of Representatives.

It could signal a big shift in Maine, which has traditionally been one of the most food-insecure states in New England. The nonprofit Feeding America found one in six Maine children struggle with hunger. The bill will cost $34 million per year, according to the Legislature’s fiscal office, though Maine has a federal waiver to provide free school meals for the next school year.

The bill must go through the Legislature’s budget committee, which is wrestling with an expanded $8.8 billion budget proposal from Gov. Janet Mills. Her administration has indicated support for the bill, noting it would reduce the need to collect on past due accounts.

Jackson said the issue was driven home to him during the pandemic, when he would drive through his district and see coolers left out for school districts to leave meals for students. But it was clear the bill would get bipartisan support when Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, spoke about his experience growing up on the reduced meal program while advocating for the bill, saying children cannot be expected to perform well when hungry.