Lauren Nelson, the lead cook at Canal Elementary, with the breakfast bins distributed to each classroom in the school daily. Contributed / Westbrook Schools

Local educators say the free meals students in Maine enjoyed last year and will continue to receive this year are working wonders in the classroom.

Westbrook school administrators and teachers say they are happy to see a return for free meals for elementary students for a second year, as well as an expanded program that will benefit middle and high school students.

The program is part of a larger initiative administered by the United States Department of Agriculture t0 provide free meals to all students in the state during the school year. The program provides free breakfast, lunch and a healthy snack each day.

Emerson expects the program to further address food insecurity, as two out of three students qualifies for free or reduced lunch in the district. But Emerson feels that number is likely higher and there are a number of families who just don’t take advantage of free or reduced lunch. The free meals program will also address the 5% of applications the department receives that are rejected because parents make “slightly too much.”

I’ve seen so many families in a Catch-22 where they make just a little too much for free meals but not enough for food security,” Emerson said. “If you make a dollar over you don’t qualify and it’s that black and white. You can’t come back and say they’ve had some hard circumstances, a flood in their house, car broke down, because their application is already complete. There is a process for someone going through cancer or extraordinary circumstances but is very strict and only if they haven’t filed an application yet.”

The schools served about 1,900 meals a day pre-pandemic, Emerson estimates.

Educators that spoke with the American Journal say free meal programs are crucial, and they’ve already seen a difference in students who are now able to get fed on a regular basis.

“We start to see they can focus more easily, are more flexible behaviorally, and aren’t falling asleep throughout the day,” said Stefanie Hall, a former Canal School teacher, intervention strategist and principal intern, in an email to the American Journal. “The free meal program also exposes students to all different types of healthy food.”

“I absolutely noticed a difference in my first-graders as they were all able to access free meals,” Canal first grade teacher Mallory Orzechowski said. “Nearly every student ate breakfast, snack and lunch, whereas in the past fewer students would eat at school.”

According to WestbrookSchool Nutrition Director Mary Emerson, the program will save parents of children almost a million dollars total, as a year’s worth of food costs about $946 for each of the roughly 1,000 kids who get school lunch.

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