Portland Public Schools students at Munjoy South Park dig into the free lunch that the district provides during the summer to anyone 18 and under. Monday was the first day of the program that distributes food at 10 sites around the city. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Around noon Monday, Kairah Pottle-Williams strolled into the schoolyard at Reiche Elementary School. Her younger sister, Peyton, trailed a few feet behind, dressed head to toe in pink on the first day of Portland Public Schools’ summer food service program.

The district, in partnership with the nonprofit Cumberland County Food Security Council, hands out free meals to anyone 18 and under at 10 sites across the city on a first-come, first-served basis.

The long-running federally funded program is meant to ensure that low-income children are getting enough to eat in the months when school lunches aren’t available, a job that is more important than ever as food insecurity is on the rise in Maine and around the country due to inflation and the lingering economic impacts of the pandemic.

Kairah, 16, and Peyton, 8, were the first visitors of the day, and of the summer, to the Reiche meal site.

“Coming here to get lunch gives us more energy and gives us a chance to eat something when we can’t get something at home,” Kairah said, sitting at a picnic bench with her sister, beginning to dig into a lunch that included carrots and hummus, pretzels and chocolate milk.

Kairah said in past summers they have gone to the food site every day it was open.


The sisters said their parents try to sustain a good amount of food at home and that when their mom cooks, they really appreciate it. The night before their mom made them pork chops and gravy, they said. “Her food is good and she works hard to prepare it,” Kairah said. Peyton nodded in agreement, a chocolate milk mustache growing above her upper lip.

The Federal Summer Food Service Program was created in 1975. In Maine, schools across the state – from Machias to Caribou to Sanford – participate.


Around 50 percent of the students in the Portland district qualify for free or reduced lunch, which means they fall below 185 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four that means an annual income of $51,338 or less.

“The summer meals program allows for continued access to free meals throughout the summer, which is especially important for students that qualify for free or reduced lunch,” said Cumberland County Food Security Food Access Organizer Colleen Donlan, who was manning a lunch site in a small park at the end of Adams Street in Portland’s East End on Monday.

The Portland district says it has fed hundreds of students each summer for at least the last eight years.


Around 50 percent of students in the Portland school district qualify for free or reduced lunch. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The COVID-19 protocols that required students take their meals to go have been lifted, and Donlan said it was nice to see the meal site become something of a community hub.

Around 10 students showed up at the East End park for lunch. They sat on benches and folding chairs, chatting and joking around as they ate. Gray clouds hung low in the sky. Every once in a while, rain fell lightly, but the kids, who after eating started a game of basketball and climbed on playground equipment, didn’t seem to notice.   

“It was really exciting to see all the kids, especially because we were really worried about the weather and that there would be low turnout, so it was really great to just have 10 kids come out and stick around to eat together and play together,” Donlan said.

Food insecurity leads to poor mental and physical health. Household food insecurity is associated with acute and chronic health problems, higher rates of asthma and depression, more emergency department use and worse general health, according to a 2019 peer-reviewed study, “Food Insecurity and Child Health,” published in Pediatrics, a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

And childhood food insecurity has increased since the start of the pandemic. The latest available data from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that the amount and severity of childhood food insecurity increased from 2019 to 2020, reversing a decade-long decline.



Very low food security among children went from 0.6 to 0.8 percent and the percent of food insecure U.S. households with children went from 13.6 percent to 14.8 percent.

More recently, inflation seems to have added to the lingering economic impacts of the pandemic, leading to further hunger in Maine and around the country, and not just for children.

Southern Maine food pantries are supporting a growing number of people as gas prices squeeze budgets. And the four-decade high in prices is most severely impacting those with the least financial wiggle room.

There are some changes to the meals program this summer due to the end of pandemic-era federal waivers that gave more flexibility to families. Where last summer recipients were able to grab and go, this year they have to eat on site, meals must be served one at a time and parents are no longer able to pick up meals for their children.

Nationally there will be more significant changes to school meal programs for the 2022-23 school year, though they won’t directly impact Maine students.

The federal waiver that provided universal free lunch is to sunset Thursday. So in most states outside Maine, lunch costs will go back to the income-dependent sliding scale used pre-pandemic, which means low-income students above the poverty line will have to pay a reduced price for lunch rather than getting it for free. In Maine, however, free meals will be provided to all students. In 2021, the Maine Senate unanimously approved legislation to make school meals free for any student starting in the 2022-23 school year.

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