Schools send buses to pick up kids because they can’t learn if they’re not there. They keep the heat on in classrooms because it’s tough to focus in the cold.

And if a student doesn’t have the right supplies, the school provides them – because otherwise it would be impossible to do the work.

Yet when a student comes to school hungry, not enough is done to make sure they get the nourishment their body and brain need to get the most out of their school day.

Under a bill before the Legislature, that would no longer be the case. L.D. 1679, from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would use state funding to ensure that every student at every school in Maine is offered free breakfast and lunch – no strings attached.

The bill recently passed through its committee with bipartisan support and now faces votes in the House and Senate. Lawmakers should not hesitate to approve the bill – frankly, it is impossible to understate what a positive effect it will have on the health of students and their ability to achieve their potential.

We’ve seen it happen before. Last year, as a result of the pandemic, every school in the U.S. received a federal waiver to provide meals to every resident 18 and under. Before that, some schools in Maine, where 1 in 6 children struggles to get the nutrition they need, have for years offered universal free meals through a federal program for high-poverty schools.

Giving out free meals to every student who wants one removed the stigma that has historically come with getting free lunch. It gives parents struggling to feed their kids a break. And it eliminates the wasteful cost of administering a income-based lunch program.

It casts a wider net, too, helping out all those students whose household incomes do not qualify for the traditional free lunch program but whose families still struggle to pay bills and stock the cupboards. 

In the end, a universal meals program serves more meals far more effectively, at a lower local cost. It gets healthy meals into the hands of more students, relieving stress on themselves and their parents, and allowing them to take on the day along with the rest of their classmates.

It makes for happier, healthier, more engaged students, and better schools for everyone.

Without Jackson’s bill that could all end. We could go back to an income-based program, where students who get free lunch are either bullied, something students told legislators they see regularly.

We could go back to a system where kids skip meals because of the stigma, or to lessen the burden on their cash-strapped parents. Where thousands of hungry kids miss meals because their parents make just a little more than poverty level. Where money is wasted on administration when it could put an extra cook in the kitchen, turning out healthy meals from local ingredients.

We could go back to a system where “lunch can be the worst part of the day for someone,” as one student told lawmakers.

Or we could establish for the long term a system that truly nurtures and supports students as they work through their day – one that shows them how important their well-being and success is to the community around them.

It should not be a hard choice.


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