Phippsburg community members recently banded together to pay off student meal debt at Phippsburg Elementary School, but experts say free school meals for all students would be beneficial for financial, academic and health reasons.

Ann Marie Bartoo, left, and Anna Varian. Contributed image

The U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a Modified Summer Food Service Program, which suspends meal costs for the 2020-2021 academic year until Sept. 30 to relieve families of the cost during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the program doesn’t erase student meal debt families accrued prior to the pandemic.

Families gain meal debt when a child is given a meal in school regardless of whether they have money on their school meal accounts to pay for it, as required by an anti-food shaming bill the state legislature passed last year.

“The rule is you feed everybody and not shame anyone,” said Phippsburg Elementary School Kitchen Manager Anna Varian. “There was a time when a person who had not pre-paid on their account was given something, in my eyes, ridiculous like a cheese sandwich, which shamed even further because everybody knew why somebody wasn’t getting the same meal as somebody else.”

Although Varian is done with giving children cheese sandwiches if they haven’t paid, schools haven’t shaken student meal debt, much to Varian’s disappointment.

“To me, I’m dealing with young children … and I would like to have universal meals so that (student meal debt) is never an issue,” she said.

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Phippsburg Elementary School had $1,275 in school meal debt before Ann Marie Bartoo, a volunteer at the school, alerted friends and neighbors to the issue. Together, the community members raised over $3,300 to erase the debt.

“I was devastated when I spoke with (Varian) because I don’t think anyone, let alone any child, should be hungry,” said Bartoo.

At Phippsburg Elementary School, 40% of students qualify for free and reduced meals, and according to census reporter.org, nearly 30% of Phippsburg children live below the poverty line.

Although school meals cost less than $2 and families can apply for a child to receive free or reduced-priced meals based on a family’s income and size, debt can add up quickly.

According to Regional School Unit 1 Food Services Director Tim Harkins, the district’s current student meal debt sits at $12,800. In RSU 1, which covers Bath, Arrowsic, Phippsburg and Woolwich, around 41% of students qualify or receive free or reduced meals.

In Maine, a student’s unpaid meal debt doesn’t have to be paid at the end of each year, said Harkins. Instead, a student’s unpaid debt will follow them throughout their education as long as they remain in a school district, allowing it to build if families can’t pay.

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Brunswick School Department’s student meal debt sits at $9,576 and about 26% of students qualify for free or reduced meals, according to Scott Smith, Brunswick School Department Director of Facilities, Grounds and Food Service.

RSU 5, including Freeport, Pownal and Durham, has $14,447 in student meal debt and about 23% of the student body qualified for free or reduced meals, according to RSU 5 School Nutrition Director Erin Dow.

Maine School Administrative District 75, covering Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham, currently has no student meal debt because it applied some of its revenue from last year to erase that debt, said MSAD 75 Food Service Director Katy DiCara.

DiCara said the district usually has anywhere from $2,000 to $11,000 in student meal debt and about 30% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Nationwide, 29.6 million students participated in the National School Lunch Program in 2019, and of those students, 20.1 million (about 68%) received free meals, according to the USDA. In the same year, another 1.7 million students (about 6%) or students received reduced-price school lunch at a cost of no more than 40 cents.

Although school meal debt is common in Maine school districts, Harkins said he would like school meals to be free for all students, regardless of income.

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“We pay for students’ books, transportation and we require that they be here, so you can make the case that we should be providing them with at least one if not two meals while they’re here,” said Harkins.

School Nutrition Association Director of Media Relations Diane Pratt-Heavner argues free meals should be available for all students because they’re a key part of students’ health and academic success.

“We know how important these meals are to student achievement,” she said. “There’s plenty of research that shows school meals contribute to better attention in the classroom, behavior and success in standardized tests. Kids depend on these meals and they should be part of their education, but we need Congress to take that step and recognize it.”

Pratt-Heavner said offering free meals to everyone would also remove the stigma for students who rely on free or reduced meals now and take pressure off families who are uncomfortable with applying for free or reduced meals.

Maine Department of Education Child Nutrition Director Walter Beesley agreed, adding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created financial hardship for schools and families alike and neither is in a good position to pay for student meals when the USDA program ends.

“In some cases, families have come to rely on those free meals” during the pandemic, said Beesley. “What I’m worried about is these parents and students have had complimentary meals for a year, but what’s going to happen in October when we say ‘Now you have to pay?’ The economic situation hasn’t changed much, they’re just going back to a building.”

Both Pratt-Heavner and Beesley said making school meals free for all students permanently hinges on new legislation.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Susan Collins, who co-authored the federal The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act in 2019, reiterated her support for school nutrition programs.

“School meals play a vital role in the lives of our young people, with more than 82,000 Maine children relying on free and reduced-price lunches annually,” Collins wrote, in part, in a statement Thursday. “No child should feel ashamed or stigmatized because he or she cannot afford to pay for school meals.”


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