As a longtime school nutrition director, Mary Emerson can remember countless times where she has seen students not eating in the cafeteria and they have told her that their family cannot afford a school meal.
“I have a lot of experience over the years of going into cafeterias and watching kids not eat a meal because ‘My parents would be angry if I ate a school lunch. We can not afford it,'” said Emerson, who works in the Westbrook School Department.
The example is just one example of how students around the country are struggling with food insecurity, a problem that has only gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic, but which some states, including Maine, are now taking big steps to address.
In the last year, the federal government has intervened to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, and it plans to continue this program through 2021-22. The effort has highlighted the importance of providing meals to all students, not just those who meet the income requirements.
Now Maine and California have become the first states to announce plans to continue with free meals in 2022-23 and beyond.
“There has certainly been a big push in this direction, in part because of the exemptions that the USDA granted to schools during the pandemic to allow free meal service for all students,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. a nonprofit that advocates for high quality, inexpensive meals for students across the country.
“We have seen such great benefits associated with offering meals to students and giving them the choice to take them. It really ensures that all children who need that meal and who are addicted to school meals get these meals.”
Making school meals free for all students can dramatically improve access to healthy food for thousands of Maine children. According to the Maine Department of Education, about 38 percent, or 65,000 students, are currently eligible for free or discounted meals.
But the updated state budget, approved last month, incorporates language into statutes that will provide universal free meals for all after federal exemptions expire. As part of the budget, the Legislative Assembly’s Appropriations Committee has set up a designated fund at the Department of Education called the Meals for Students Fund, which will help pay the difference between the federal reimbursements the state receives for free meals and the cost of school meals for all. .
The move is hailed as a game changer by proponents of children’s hunger. They say the current school meal program overlooks students whose families may not qualify based on income, or who experience other circumstances, such as lack of transportation or medical bills, disrupting their access to healthy food.
“This is a big step in the right direction,” said Anna Korsen, director of advocacy for Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit organization working to stop childhood hunger in Maine. Over the past year, Korsen said some districts where children’s hunger was considered less prevalent saw huge increases in attendance at school meals as the federal government made them free for all.
“I think it shows how many families living right on the edge of really need help,” she said. “Having a school meal available – breakfast and lunch every day – for your kids can really help in terms of food and financial security.”
Deborah Jendrasko, a cafeteria worker at Portland Public Schools, said she has seen a clear need for school meals during the pandemic and does not expect it to subside soon. About 48 percent of students in Portland qualify for free meals at a reduced price.
“I feel like we’re still not through this,” Jendrasko said one morning last week as she worked on preparing and distributing breakfast for the district’s summer meal program. “While there are signs of getting through this, there is still a need, and if we are able to (continue to offer free meals), I think that’s a good thing.”
A student is currently eligible for a free meal if their annual household income is $ 34,450 or less for a family of four. But family income is not the only factor that determines whether a student may be starving, and income eligibility levels are low enough that some families struggling financially may not qualify.
Emerson, the school’s nutrition director at Westbrook, has long felt that school meals should be free for all students. About 60 percent of students in the district currently qualify for free or discounted meals. But Emerson said there are many families in need who do not meet the income requirements.
“I think we in Maine are being hit even harder because we have the high cost of heating oil,” Emerson said. “We’re the last stop for food trucks coming through. Our (spending on) food is higher. It costs money to live in the state of Maine.… You need to buy snow tires, winter coats and boots for your kids and heating oil to keep your home warm. It costs more, and no food is grown here in the winter. ”
Across the country, costs have been a barrier to offering free school meals, though states and the federal government have taken gradual steps toward expanding access. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act created the Community Eligibility Act, which allows schools in low-income areas to offer free meals to everyone without having to collect individual applications for free lunch at a reduced price. President Biden’s American Families Plan, unveiled last week, would expand this program to allow more schools to participate in higher reimbursement rates.
There is also proposed federal legislation, the Universal School Meals Act of 2021 – introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt .; Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn .; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y .; and rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. – it would expand the USDA’s free meal program offered during the pandemic to offer free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack to all school children regardless of income.
Pratt-Heavner, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, said the association has advocated for the bill and the adoption of universal meals at the federal level.
“I think families and schools have realized how valuable free meal service has been over the last few years and it will be very difficult if schools have to go back to this burdensome application process and charge families for this service when the pandemic exemptions are expired., “she said. “I think there are many states and the federal government that are looking ahead and thinking about the need to keep this free meal service available.”
In Maine, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, sponsored legislation that served as the basis for the language of the budget bill and that received strong support from two parties. Dozens of supporters of Jackson’s bill testified last spring, saying free meals for all will reduce the stigma that free meals are for low-income students only and prevent school districts from accumulating debt from students who do not pay their lunch bills.
No one testified against the bill, though the Maine School Management Association expressed concern about school districts facing increased labor costs associated with preparing and serving more school meals.
While food insecurity has long been a problem, Jackson said it was not until the pandemic when he saw coolers along the way – where school staff handed out meals to students learning from home – that the seriousness of the problem hit Hi M.
“At first I did not know why they were there, but they provided meals in these coolers because those families relied on these meals for their children,” Jackson said. “It just seemed like it’s worth the effort for the price of what it’s going to take to cover each child.”
Exactly how much it will cost to provide free school meals for everyone remains to be seen. Jackson’s legislation included a tax bill that estimated the annual cost at about $ 34 million, though he said he believes the cost could be lower, about $ 15 million or $ 20 million. Either way, he said it will be money well spent.
“I do not think it will be close to what some people might think,” Jackson said. “I think every single school district will save money and resources, and again, I think that’s a better policy.”
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