Maine has seen a drop in the number of applications for free and reduced-price school meals since the federal government moved to make meals free for all students during the coronavirus pandemic.

The decline in benefit applications could jeopardize state and federal funding to schools.

Because of that, the Maine Department of Education is encouraging families to complete free and reduced lunch benefit applications even though universal free meals will continue in the coming school year and beyond.

“Maine needs all parents and caregivers to take action this school year – by taking the time to complete the confidential Meal Benefit Application through your local school, even if school meals are already free for all students,” the department said in a news release Wednesday. “Families, schools, communities and our state can greatly benefit from the data that is gathered from the application and this application is important for a number of reasons.”

The federal government covered the cost of meals for all students last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue the program through the 2021-22 school year. In addition, Maine is one of just two states that have moved to make free school meals permanent post-pandemic.

Since meals became free, however, the state has seen a significant drop in families filling out applications for benefits. In the last school year, a total of 64,925 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals after their families filled out applications. That’s a decline of 13,598 from the 2019-2020 school year, when 78,523 students, or about 44 percent of the total student population, qualified.

At least part of that decrease may be due to a decline in applications, said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email Wednesday. By comparison 81,838 students qualified for free or reduced meals in 2018-19.

The drop in applications is a problem because the income data on the application forms is also used for determining key funding for schools, including meal reimbursements from the federal government; funding for Title I programs in schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students; funding for after-school programs; and money from the Maine Legislature for programs, services and special education.

“Federal and state government use the aggregate data from the application to distribute education funding to schools across the country and state of Maine,” the department said. “In other words, if there is no data to inform the needs of the community, it could result in less education funding for your local district and for Maine.”

Anna Korsen, director of advocacy for Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in Maine, also stressed the importance of completing the application forms in an interview last week.

Applications can be completed at any time during the school year, although households applying between now and the end of August may qualify for an additional pandemic EBT benefit. Most districts have made the application available online and printed versions are often sent home at the start of the school year as well.

“Families should be sure to fill out their free and reduced lunch applications,” Korsen said. “Those are so important for the coming school year so that schools can get adequate federal funds to support all of their educational programs. It’s really critical that families fill those out. It really helps the school and it can also really help their family.”

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