L.D. 1679 addresses a moral issue in a way that will save Maine millions.

School food programs are told what and how much they must serve, the ingredients they can use and how much they should cost, all without the benefit of being able to control what price they charge per meal. Add the moral obligation to feed their customers, children, and one can understand why nearly all school nutrition departments in Maine operate in the red.

Depending on the size of the district, this financial loss can total tens of thousands of dollars annually. Statute dictates that dining services budgets are independent from the school budget process and must at least break even. Yet, this is so rarely the case that state law also dictates losses in this area must be covered by the general school budget. In my district, this leads to the need to raise an additional $80,000 annually that local property taxpayers must contribute. We aren’t unique. Rather, districts that do not have this issue are the outliers, annually making up 5 percent to 12 percent of Maine’s districts.

Every student, regardless of family income, gets equal access to books and busing because we recognize them as necessary for success. This is true of everything in school, except food.

The current system, breaking students into income categories, wastes time, labor and money. My district’s dining services director estimates it wastes $6,000-$8,000 annually, which includes the time he and his staff act as collections agents chasing school meal debt, some of which is never recovered; a problem that existed previously but was exacerbated by COVID. Multiply this across the state. Maine wastes millions of dollars and expertise that would better serve our communities elsewhere.

Instead, staff could be sourcing from local farmers, using Maine’s local procurement program. Every school nutrition dollar spent on local food generates an additional 93 cents to $1.11 for the local economy. Additionally, school nutrition departments could spend that time marketing meal programs to students to increase participation. Low participation costs us money. Higher participation equals more U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursement. These are calculable dollars being lost.

No less real are the long-term financial losses when students do not have nutrition appropriate for their development. Science is discovering connections between nutrition, behavior, and development. Hunger induced disruptive behaviors are often dealt with by the school principal. Instead of coaching teachers and developing curriculum, our highest paid employees spend hours daily dealing with disruptive behaviors, substantial numbers of which could be avoided if every child had adequate nutrition. These behaviors spiral into adulthood, costing Maine millions.

Studies show adults who suffered childhood food insecurity have poor impulse control, higher rates of violence, lower achievement levels and poor health outcomes. This translates into health, criminal justice and property costs for Maine.

Free school meals for all Maine kids would save a lot of money. Just focusing on school budgets, recent studies show universal free meals increases participation, thus increasing school meal revenue.

Some say this is a federal issue. True. But having that be the end of the conversation is not a solution, and un-Maine. If the roof of my apartment has a hole in it, the fact that it’s the negligent landlord’s responsibility doesn’t change the fact that I’m getting wet. I patch the hole and, not or, deal with the landlord. Maine’s officials and congressional delegation should petition the federal government to fix this. FoodCorps, a national organization, is doing so, and we will stand beside Maine in that effort. Until then, Maine kids are getting farther behind, becoming adults who are farther behind, costing Maine millions.

L.D. 1679 passed the Maine Senate unanimously and received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Maine House, except for 26 members who voted against feeding kids and saving money. Gov. Mills and the Appropriations Committee should make this a funded law.

Providing universal free school meals is cheaper, the right thing to do and good policy.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.