Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have asked Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to use his powers to expand access to school lunch programs, something the lawmakers say is needed to ensure that low-income students in Maine and across the nation can continue to have access to free or reduced price meals.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King Jr., along with Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, filed the request with Perdue on Sunday, according to a news release.

“On behalf of the more than 82,000 students in Maine who qualify to participate in the National School Lunch Program, we write to highlight the unique nutrition challenges children face in our states and across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the delegation told Perdue. “With schools closed, COVID-19 is already placing a tremendous burden on families, school districts and hunger relief organizations.”

Many Maine students, particularly those living in disadvantaged areas, rely on the meals they get at school. About 44 percent of Maine’s 180,000 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. In some schools, 100 percent of students get free meals through the federal program, which reimburses districts for meals in areas with significant low-income populations.

The delegation said that in order for those students to continue to have access to school lunches, Perdue should use new powers granted to him under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to expand flexibility around the low-income area eligibility requirement for the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option program.

By doing that, the delegation said it would allow more Maine school districts to operate as open meal sites, which are allowed to provide free meals to any child, with no registration required.

More than half of the school districts in Maine are unable to operate as open meal sites for the community because less than 50 percent of the children living in the area qualify for free or reduced price schools meals. And in Maine nearly 20 school districts are within six percentage points of qualifying, the lawmakers said.

“Removing the low-income area threshold and allowing all open meal sites to operate without administrative burdens would go a long way to helping ensure that no child goes hungry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” Maine’s delegation wrote.

During the regular school year, the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs provide about 225,000 meals daily to Maine schoolchildren. But with most schools transitioning to remote class instruction, many low-income students no longer have convenient access to free or reduced-cost meals.

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