As I reflect on the past year of the pandemic and the legislative session, I think of how we took on challenges that existed even before the pandemic – but then were made worse by it. One of these challenges is the persistent problem of child hunger, something that no student anywhere should ever have to experience or worry about. Yet, every day children are going hungry in Maine schools.

A hungry student cannot focus or learn, whether it’s inside a classroom or at home doing remote work. A hungry student also cannot perform to the best of their ability on the playing field or the stage. Because of these reasons and more, we cannot let children go hungry at school. It’s just not right.

Susan Deschambault Courtesy photo

Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England, with one in six children lacking reliable access to basic nutrition. The pandemic, despite the many people who heroically stepped up and found ways to distribute food in our community, made this situation worse, and made it harder for parents to put food on the table, whether it’s because they lost their jobs or had to take care of loved ones who got sick.

In fact, even before the pandemic, almost 80,000 students were already eligible for free meals at schools. And now, because of the pandemic, this situation has been made worse, and more students are projected to be eligible for free school meals.

What’s especially tricky, though, is that not all food insecure students qualify for these meals, because food security is not tied to income alone. Other factors have to be taken into consideration so that we don’t leave anyone out.

That’s why it became clear that the best and only solution to the challenge of student hunger was providing free school meals to all students. Let me explain why.

Universal free school meals are important because they improve household food security. In Maine, school meals are the only reliable source of nutrition that many children have access to. However, although these students qualify for these meals, they sometimes choose not to get them because of feelings of shame or stigma.

If everyone receives a free school meal, then no one suffers from these feelings – and, most importantly, students actually eat the food that is being provided for them. Students having access to filling, healthy meals increases all kinds of metrics that matter to school districts: attendance, behavior, readiness. Nourished students also have better health outcomes, such as decreased obesity rates and increased overall wellness.

Funding universal free school meals in the historic, bipartisan biennial budget was a great achievement. So was helping schools purchase more food from local farms and producers. These new partnerships between our local farms and schools in our communities will support farmers and students as we work toward the common goal of reducing hunger.

I was proud to support both bills, LD 221 and LD 636, which were signed into law. We’ll all rest easier knowing that our students, during a pandemic or not, won’t go to school hungry. Reducing hunger is one of those things that we can all be proud of, and it’s something that will help our children learn and grow.

It’s an honor to represent you in Augusta. If you have any questions about the bills we passed this year, or have an idea for a piece of legislation you think would benefit Mainers, please reach out to me. You can contact me via email at [email protected] or call my office at 207-287-1515.

Susan Deschambault represents Senate District 32, which is includes Alfred, Arundel, Biddeford, Dayton, Kennebunkport and Lyman.

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