During the pandemic and recently extended through the next school year, school breakfast and lunch programs are providing free meals to all Maine students, regardless of their family’s income. The emergency adoption of school meals at no cost is a vital support to families and school nutrition staff during a turbulent time. In fact, many students experiencing food insecurity are not eligible for free and reduced-price meals at school, and the flexibilities allowed during the pandemic give us a taste of what a more equitable school food program could look like here in Maine. The permanent adoption of School Meals for All will open the doors to a more resilient food system, supporting school nutrition programs to offer more local food options to students.

For institutional food service, the two biggest barriers to offering local foods are time and money. Compared to conventional or processed products, local foods can be more expensive and time-consuming to procure and process. Even though many school nutrition programs want to incorporate more Maine-grown foods in their menus, it’s often not a viable option through the traditional tiered (paid/reduced-price/free) school meals model.

School Meals for All will streamline and strengthen school nutrition programs by eliminating the time-intensive administrative burden of collecting school meal applications and chasing down unpaid school lunch “debt.” More time will free up school nutrition staff to focus on what’s really important: feeding kids nutritious, high quality meals, while supporting the Maine economy. A recent study found that school meals are the healthiest meals for many children, and we should support our school nutrition professionals to continue to provide the most nutritious food.

School meals served at no charge means school nutrition programs could instead invest time and resources into sourcing and incorporating into meals more local foods, which are often ruled out under the current paid school meal model because of the prohibitive amount of time it takes to source, prepare and process them. Schools also will have more capacity to reach out to local farmers or train staff on how to work with and prepare local products through scratch cooking. Maine school nutrition directors are passionate about this work already but often cite the additional time, and sometimes increased cost, as barriers to greater implementation.

School nutrition programs will have more money to spend on local foods if a School Meals for All program is adopted. Schools receive reimbursement for every meal that is served; if all meals are served at no charge, that will result in an uptick in participation by students and, therefore, more money going back into the school nutrition programs to spend on local food, which directly benefits the Maine economy. There is already an initiative to expand Maine’s Local Produce Fund (L.D. 636: An Act to Encourage the Purchase of Local Foods for Public Schools), along with several technical assistance organizations in Maine to support school nutrition professionals to grow their local procurement.

This year, Maine has the opportunity to make School Meals for All a permanent solution by way of L.D. 1679: An Act to Address Student Hunger through Expanding Access to Free School Meals. Under the leadership of Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, this bill will ensure all Maine children have access to nutritious food at school.

This concerted effort of state and local food advocacy, in tandem with School Meals for All, will be a huge step in creating more equity in the Maine food system. Any student in Maine, regardless of their family’s income, will have more access to fresh, local foods on a daily basis at school. Maine farms and fisheries will gain expanded market channels in over 200 school districts in Maine that serve hundreds of thousands of school meals every day. School Meals for All will be a win for Maine students, Maine farmers and fisheries and Maine schools.

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