PORTLAND — The latest report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the percentage of children in Maine at risk for hunger is one of the highest in the nation.

The report, released in September, said one in five children in the state are food insecure, which means that being fed at school is more important than ever.

The Portland Public Schools now serve 1,530 free meals annually, according to Jane McLucas. the district’s food service director.

She said the School Department applied for and received federal assistance to serve a free breakfast and lunch to any student at the four elementary schools located in neighborhoods where the poverty level is the highest in the city.

Simply put, McLucas said, “A hungry child cannot learn. … In these schools, all students are able to choose school meals free of charge. We have taken away the stigma associated with school meals.”

Students at East End Community School and Presumpscot, Reiche and Riverton Elementary are all able to eat every day without having their families apply for either a free or reduced meal, McLucas said.

“The Community Eligibility Provision is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas,” she said. “The CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.”

Filling out an application can be a barrier for families where English is not the first language or where literacy is an issue. That’s why three years ago the Portland schools applied for the CEP designation, which allows the district to be fully reimbursed for each meal it serves at the eligible schools.

Part of the requirement for CEP status is that the school district must issue an announcement each year about which local schools qualify under the program guidelines. Usually that’s done at the start of the school year, but Portland didn’t get its release out until last week, McLucas said.

To be CEP eligible schools must have at least 40 percent of the student population qualify for free or reduced meals. McLucas said the four elementary schools participating in CEP this school year have a high percentage of students who come from families struggling to make ends meet.

She said students at the four designated schools are served the same menu as students at all of the other elementary schools in the district.

In addition, “we still accept free and reduced meal applications for students at the other Portland Public Schools (and) families may apply at any time during the school year,” McLucas said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

All students at Portland’s East End, Presumpscot, Reiche and Riverton schools can get a free breakfast and lunch without having to fill out an application.