SACO — Every weekday during the school year, the families of thousands of kids in Maine struggle to afford lunch. Yet the average cost to feed a student statewide is only $2.68 per meal for elementary students and $2.86 for middle and high school students, each totaling less than $15 a week. In many communities, the cost is even lower.

As of January 2018, Maine was also facing more than $350,000 in overdrawn school lunch accounts statewide, according to the state’s child nutrition director. Maine Department of Education data show that 70,451 of the state’s 178,599 students are eligible to receive free lunch during the 2019 fiscal year, while another 11,387 are eligible for reduced-price lunch. Together, that’s more than 45 percent of all students. Food insecurity among Maine’s kids can’t be overlooked any longer.

Ensuring all students receive an adequate lunch is a critical component to providing them with a quality education. Research has shown that students who don’t eat lunch don’t perform as well in school, particularly in areas like math and reading. Nutrition provided by school lunch has the power to positively affect learning capacity, improve attendance and reduce the risk of illness and other health issues, according to the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program that supplies healthy lunches to schools.

Research has also shown that certain nutritional deficiencies can affect learning and cognitive development in children, causing them to progress at slower rates than their peers. These include deficiencies in protein, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins. Poor diets that are high in trans and saturated fats can also negatively influence learning and memory by affecting the brain. Access to good nutrition can mitigate behavioral problems at school, leading to reduced aggression and fewer of the disciplinary issues that result in suspensions.

Securing a proper school lunch addresses a broader issue facing Maine’s students: food insecurity. This measure determines whether people have consistent access to enough food to live an active and healthy life. A 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Maine’s food insecurity rate – nearly 16 percent – is the ninth highest in the country and the highest in New England. The next closest regionally is Connecticut, with a rate of just over 13 percent. In York and Cumberland counties, 61,530 individuals were considered food insecure in 2016, according to Feeding America. The USDA report also found that one out of every five children in Maine faced this issue. For these students, a substantial breakfast and dinner are not guaranteed. Sometimes, their only dependable meal during the week is the lunch they receive at school, and it can also be their best source of proper nutrition.

Fighting to provide all students access to school lunch shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It should be a priority. That’s why Saco and Biddeford Savings applauds the Legislature’s recent passing of the bipartisan bill to end “food shaming” in Maine schools. We’re doing our part by creating the Community Debit Card Program, which donates to school lunch and nutrition programs in six communities in York and Cumberland counties – Saco, Biddeford, Old Orchard Beach, Westbrook, Scarborough and South Portland. During the 2017-2018 school year – the program’s first – the program generated more than $10,000 in donations, and we’re looking to build on that momentum this year. Supporting school nutrition is about more than simply feeding our students today. It’s an investment in our future.

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