Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ support as an original cosponsor of the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act of 2022 is encouraging. After all, this is legislation that will help address a moral and a financial issue in Maine.

Most Mainers know the tragic statistics. Only 11 other states are hungrier than Maine. Specifically, one in five Maine children is food insecure, the worst in New England. These numbers can seem nebulous, but they represent concrete and high costs. Cosponsoring this bipartisan legislation is a good idea, but it is not enough. Sen. Collins wields considerable influence in Washington. Now is the time for her to flex those muscles, working hard to ensure this bill becomes law, and quickly.

This bill extends waivers of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that have long limited the ability of our schools to equitably, sufficiently feed students. School nutrition departments are unique among all other public education programs. Essentially, your ability to access the service (nutritious meals to help you learn) are tied to your family’s income. We don’t do this with anything else. All students in a given school, regardless of ZIP code or the socioeconomic status of their parents, have equal access to math books, buses, desks, even playground equipment. For school meals, however, students are placed into one of three categories: free, reduced-price or full-pay.

School nutrition department budgets are, by law, separate from the general school budget. As stand-alone “businesses,” they’re expected to be financially self-sustaining. But, also by law, they must operate in ways in which no business could ever succeed financially, which is why so many schools must supplement the revenue of their school cafeterias from the district’s general operating funds, whatever the law says. Thanks to the emergency response to COVID, we have, for the last two years, experienced a more equitable, less arcane school meal system.

During the pandemic, Congress authorized waivers to USDA policy that allowed schools to be reimbursed for all meals they served, regardless of the student’s family income, without the usual paperwork, income verification or requiring schools to act as collections agents chasing families who are, in many cases, utilizing school meals because they can’t afford to buy food in the first place. This allowed dining services programs to come up for air and begin looking at modernizing their equipment, connect with local farmers for fresher ingredients and reduce the money required from local school budgets, thus providing the potential to lower property taxes or redirect that money to other places where it is sorely needed. But, just when we have a system that actually works, the waivers are set to expire just after this school year ends.

We now have two years’ experience with what many of us – pediatricians, teachers, principals, parents and farmers – have been advocating for years: namely, a system in which all kids get access to nourishing breakfasts, lunches and snacks at school, a system that actually lowers property taxes or allows for reallocation of funds to other educational needs. Ideally, Congress would see this experience and overhaul the entire system. In the meantime, we are forced to hope for stop-gap measures.

One is Maine’s landmark universal meals law, which Gov. Mills has proposed to fully fund in her supplemental budget. This law passed in the last legislative session with overwhelming bipartisan support. Now, other states are considering following our lead (Dirigo!). But this is a federal program. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of states, or local property taxpayers, to fill in massive gaps left by the federal government.

Sen. Collins, thank you! But cosponsoring isn’t enough. Mainers expect this kind of common-sense legislation. We also expect our leaders to do whatever they can to get their colleagues on the Hill to agree and pass this quickly, then get down to work overhauling the system before we’re over a cliff yet again.

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