Kids need nutritious food in order to learn, to grow and to be healthy. Right now, more than 29 percent of our state budget goes to school funding, and that pays for a lot. We make sure every student has transportation to and from school, wonderful teachers and the opportunity to try out for sports teams. From the seventh grade on, every student even has a laptop. But we come up short on making sure every kid has enough to eat while they are in school.

Tragically, one in six Maine children is battling hunger, which is impeding their ability to learn in school. Obviously this makes no moral sense, and it doesn’t make fiscal sense, either. It has been well documented that a hungry child can’t learn, can’t concentrate, gets distracted and often misbehaves. Without proper nutrition to fuel their minds and bodies, a portion of our precious tax dollars spent on our public schools are going to waste. Study after study shows that when a child is fed, they are better able to learn, test scores increase and behavior improves. Access to meals at school also results in improved child health and wellness and reduces hunger-related visits to the nurse’s office.

The answer: Let’s feed all Maine kids in our schools, at no additional cost to families. A recent study found that when school meals are provided to all kids free of charge, more kids eat, especially those that need those meals most. Every meal provided to a child (regardless of family income) results in federal reimbursements back into the school nutrition program.

By feeding all of our kids at school, we also address the fundamental barrier of stigma and shame. I know it shouldn’t be this way, but when I was a child, I was keenly aware of which kids got free hot lunch and which didn’t – I was one of the kids who did. Additionally, not all kids who experience hunger qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Some families have difficulty filling out the forms because of time constraints, complexity of the application or other barriers. As a result, the school meal eligibility rate never fully captures the need.

If we had school meals at no additional cost for all our students, it would also help bring a scale of efficiency to our school meals programs, making them more financially viable. It would eliminate school meal debt that often accrues when families fail to pay their bill. Schools across our state struggle to reconcile school meal debt, and because school meal debt cannot be paid for using federal child nutrition funds, districts must cover the cost out of their general education funds, which takes funding away from other educational supports. In a nationwide survey of school nutrition programs, before the pandemic around 75 percent of schools reported carrying school lunch debt. By fully funding our school meal programs, school nutrition directors will be able to spend their time sourcing and preparing nutritious food for our kids, rather than chasing after kids and families to recoup school meal debt.

Today, Maine spends more money on K-12 school funding than on any other state service: nearly $3 billion per year. As taxpayers, we all contribute to this funding and we should make sure we’re getting the best outcomes for our money. Isn’t it time that we made sure all Maine kids have access to nutritious meals at school, so they can focus on learning, not on where the next meal might be coming from?

The answer is pretty simple to me: We should provide school meals for all our kids, and that’s why I support L.D. 1679 and urge my colleagues in the Maine Legislature to do the same.

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