Jay Townsend, a food service technician for Portland Public Schools, unloads and hands out school lunches to children at Munjoy South Friday. The meals are free and delivered to drop-off locations across the city. A new law in Maine makes school meals free for all students beginning with the 2022-2023 school year. Townsend said it was a “step in the right direction.” Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Nutrition advocates say the state’s move to make school meals free for all students is a game-changer that will increase participation and end a long-held stigma.

Beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, meals will be free for all students, regardless of family income levels. Maine is just the second state, after California, to adopt such a measure. School meals have been provided free to all students throughout the pandemic and will continue to be through next school year, but a new Maine law makes it a permanent arrangement.

Beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, school meals will be free to students regardless of their family’s income. Maine is just the second state to do so. Contributed / Falmouth School Department

“This new law here in Maine has the potential to be the most important piece of child hunger policy,” said Anna Korsen, advocacy director for Portland-based Full Plates Full Potential.

It will go a long way towards ensuring students across the state are getting the nutrition they need, she said.

In the Westbrook district, where close to two-thirds of students qualify for free/reduced meals, the new program will help with the district’s efforts toward equity and inclusion, said Mary Emerson, school nutrition director.

“Everyone is eligible, so I really feel it is going to remove some of that stigma because no one is going to be expected to pay. It will help a lot of working parents, too,” Emerson said.

Prior to the pandemic, approximately 80,000 of the 180,000 students in Maine’s public schools qualified for the free school meals, Korsen said. Of those who qualified for free breakfast, 60% didn’t take it, and 40% of those meeting the requirements for free lunches didn’t take them, she said. Those students who chose not to accept the free meals will benefit from the new law, she said.

Korsen said studies, including one done in June by the School Nutrition Association, show when income eligibility requirements are removed, more students participate in school nutrition programs.

“When students are provided free meals, the stigma goes away and participation goes up,” she said.

Emerson said in her 15 years in school nutrition, she has seen cases of students being denied free meals because their family income was even $1 over the cutoff level. In some instances, she said, parents didn’t allow their children to get free school meals because they felt they and their children would be stigmatized for doing so.

Jeanne Rielly, the director of school nutrition for the Windham/Raymond district, said the new law “levels the playing field.”

“So often families don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch, but still struggle with food insecurity at home,” Rielly said. “We see a lot of kids in the cafeteria with inadequate meals.”

Although all children will receive the free meals, it is important for parents and guardians to continue to fill out the school meals application, Korsen said. Districts use that information to get a sense of their communities’ needs and so they can maximize federal reimbursements. Emerson said completing the applications will also make sure school districts get the right amount of federal education funding.

“The family income data provided by the application informs key funding for school resources,” the Department of Education wrote in a July 14 news release. “This includes school meal reimbursements, funding for Title I programs, funding and resources for after school programs, funding provided to schools from the Maine State Legislature for essential programs and services at school, funding for special education, teacher loan forgiveness (and more).”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will still reimburse Maine school districts for providing free school meals for students whose families meet certain income eligibility, but $10 million has been set aside in Gov. Janet Mills’ updated budget to reimburse districts for those meals the FDA doesn’t cover.

Korsen says $10 million won’t be enough, and estimates the cost to be closer to $24 million.

“When kids are back in school, we will get a better understanding as to what school meal participation will look like,” Korsen said.

The federal government potentially could make all school meals free beyond the pandemic, she said. A bill before Congress, The Universal Schools Meals Program Act, would make school breakfasts, lunches and snacks free to students regardless of family income, eliminate school meal debt and encourage local food procurement.

Even when meals do become free, either through the state’s initiative or a federal act, Korsen said the work won’t let up for her organization.

“Our work will continue in the area of food access for kids,” she said. “That work will include working with schools to make sure they are offering the highest quality food possible for kids. We believe strongly that everyone desires high quality food.”

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