Regional School Unit 2 food service director Chrissy Michaud on Friday in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

HALLOWELL — All Maine children younger than age 18 are eligible for free meals through the end of the year, and central Maine school districts are working to make sure parents know.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended the free school food program — which started as part of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure all students would be fed regardless of their family’s income — until Dec. 31. But in order for their children to receive meals, parents need to fill out a form with their school district.

That’s something many have not been doing, according to Chrissy Michaurd, food service director for Regional School Unit 2.

“I’d love to think that everyone would utilize this program,” Michaud said. “There are lots of families in the district that have food insecurities, but normally wouldn’t qualify (for free and reduced lunch), and some parents don’t like to fill out the form because they think that they don’t qualify. For whatever reason, we don’t get a lot of applications back.”

For RSU 2 students, the district has tried to make it easy for all students to access meals, especially since the school is participating in a hybrid learning model because of the coronavirus. Students are split up into three cohorts: A and B for in-person learning, and the fully remote cohort C. A and B rotate between two in-person learning days and two remote learning days; Wednesday is a catch-up day for all students.

Depending on what group a student is in, parents can either come on Tuesday nights (cohort A), or on Friday evenings (cohort B) to grab meals for the week and weekend.

“Right now, we haven’t had many parents sign up,” Michaud said. “If we go by the numbers that we had last spring, each town in the RSU is different, but Richmond for the month of May, gave out 6,000 breakfasts and 6,000 lunches a month.”

Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12, and Augusta and Winthrop public schools are also encouraging students to sign up for the free meal program. The Facebook Page for Augusta’s Farrington Elementary School has an informational video to help explain the lunch pick-up process for remote learners.

Not too far from RSU 2, Camp Mechuwana served free meals from the middle of March until the end of August when the school year started. At the end of August, Camp Mechuwana Director Norman Thombs reported that around 60,000 meals were given out to students by the end of the summer.

In a school year unaffected by coronavirus, students would be eligible for free and reduced lunch if their family had an income between 130% to 180% of the poverty line. According to the U.S. Census, the average annual household income in Maine is $55,000 and 11% of the state lives within the national poverty level of $17,240 for a family of two.

Full Plates Full Potential, a “statewide organization focused solely on maximizing participation in federal child nutrition programs” according to its website, compiled data for all school districts in Maine to highlight school enrollments, the number of students who were eligible for free and reduced lunch based on income guidelines, the participation rates of each school in the program, and how many federal dollars went unclaimed due to families not taking part.

Here is a breakdown of how central Maine school districts compared, based on 2020 data from the Full Plates’ website:

• Augusta Public Schools — 1,042 of the district’s 1,963 students, 53%, were eligible for participation in free and reduced lunch based on income guidelines. Participation rates at the schools ranged from 48% at Cony Middle and High School to 69% at Farrington Elementary School, and a total of $16,605 federal lunch dollars went unclaimed in the district.

• Fayette Public Schools — 36 of its 78 students, 46.1%, were eligible for the lunch program; its participation was 66% and $357 federal lunch dollars went unclaimed.

• Maine School Administrative District 11 — 725 of its 2,012 students, 36%, were eligible for the lunch program. Participation rates at the schools ranged from 41% at Gardiner Area High School to 66% at River View Community School, and $15,586 federal lunch dollars went unclaimed.

• Regional School Unit 2 — 685 of its 1,978 students, 34.6%, were eligible for the lunch program. Participation rates at the schools ranged from 31% at Monmouth Academy to 59% at Dresden Elementary School, and $16,680 federal lunch dollars went unclaimed.

• Regional School Unit 12 — 319 of its 652 students, 48.9%, were eligible for the lunch program. Participation rates at the schools ranged from 54% at Chelsea Elementary School to 63% at Windsor Elementary School, and $5,702 federal lunch dollars went unclaimed.

• Regional School Unit 38 — 427 of its 996 students, 43.1%, were eligible for the lunch program. Participation rates at the schools ranged from 47% at Maranacook Community High School and Readfield Elementary School to 59% at Manchester Elementary School, and $16,136 federal lunch dollars went unclaimed.

• Winthrop Public Schools — 269 of its 882 students, 30.4%, were eligible for the lunch program. Participation rates at the schools ranged from 32% at Winthrop High School to 51% at Winthrop Grade School, and $5,626 federal lunch dollars went unclaimed.

Studies have shown a link between having enough to eat and success in school, something that Michaud pointed out.

“They need to have nourishment in order to learn,” she said.

With scheduling changes and remote learning options due to the coronavirus, fewer families have applied for the meal programs. Michaud said district staff has been reaching out to families that have used the program in the past but have not signed up yet this year. While all students have access to free meals this year, she said families still need to submit the form to register.

Michaud also noted that the state bases its financial support for school districts on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“It not only helps with meals, but helps with getting a pro-rate for laptop insurance, more money for Title 1, and the more students with free and reduced lunches that we have in the district, the more ability we have to get ed techs for working with students,” she said.

Michaud hopes that the funding will be extended past Dec. 31.

“I have always wanted and believed that kids should eat for free,” she said. “Will that happen? It’s a huge cost. I would like to think that it will be extended.”

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