Maine’s “food shaming” law is doing its job, making sure hungry students have access to school meals without question or stigma.

But more must be done to get kids the food they need and far too often are not getting, and to lower the burden on school districts and taxpayers.

The law, passed by the Legislature in April 2019, prohibits schools from denying meals to children whose parents can’t or don’t pay.

Prior to this year, many schools would cuts off students whose debt reached a certain amount, or serve them a lesser meal — telling the entire lunch room about their household’s financial problems.

Those policies kept students from participating in the school meals program, inexcusable in a state where hunger is rampant, particularly in households with children. For too many Maine students, school meals make up the bulk of their nutrition, and any attempt to limit those meals leaves them hungry and unprepared to learn.

Predictably, however, the law has caused the school meal debt to rise. The Sun Journal reported earlier this month that schools are seeing steep increases in debt, which they can only pass on state and local taxpayers.

School Administrative District 52 in Turner said school meal debt has risen by $18,000 this year, after being as low as $200 some years in the past. The Mt. Blue school district in Farmington said they’ve $7,000 added to the debt at their high school.

It’s important to note that each dollar added to the debt represents food served to a student who needs it to get through the day, and who may not have much to do with the debt not being paid.

We should also consider that, for example, SAD 52’s annual budget is about $27 million, so the rise in meal debt represents no more than a small rounding error. In 2018, the state Department of Education said there was more than $350,000 in overdrawn student meal accounts throughout the state — out of total preK-12 spending of $2.7 billion. With a “b.”

Still, the burden shouldn’t fall on property taxpayers, particularly as the debt will accumulate fastest in the districts that are less able to afford it. In fact, we have a solution that get state taxpayers off the hook too.

The Lewiston school district, among others in Maine, has no school debt because all its students qualify for free meals under what’s known as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s community eligibility provision. It allows districts with a certain percentage of low-income students to forgo all income requirements for free or reduced-price meals.

There are, however, hungry students missing meals in every school district, and many of them are from households that don’t qualify for food assistance. Limiting the community provision to the poorest districts misses a lot of students.

The solution is to make every school eligible automatically, so no student anywhere has to ask for a meal or be singled out because they can’t afford one.


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