If you want to see a living example of a public health intervention that has supported the well-being of Maine’s children for decades, look no further than your nearest public school cafeteria. Established after World War II, the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program now reach approximately 30 million school children daily, with a science-based menu shown to improve long-term health outcomes and academic success.

Maine has taken it a step further by providing free school meals for all public school students. Only eight states have made this commitment, elevating Maine as a national leader in making school meals both healthy and financially accessible.

It’s a promising start. Now, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture poised to finalize updates to school nutrition standards this month, we have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to build on this momentum and ensure that all children receive nutritious and delicious meals at school. This will help them succeed in the classroom and build healthier eating habits to last a lifetime.

School nutrition standards are vital; a lack of access to nutritious foods can negatively impact a child’s health. Evidence shows that children routinely consume excess sodium and added sugars, putting them at risk of elevated blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. To prevent this, healthy eating reduces children’s risk of developing high blood pressure, cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more.

We know school nutrition standards work, so it’s essential that they keep up with the science. Research has found that without the 2012 updates to school meal standards, obesity rates among children living in poverty would have been 47% higher. Even better, student participation in school lunches is higher in schools serving healthier meals. Participation in school meals has been linked to positive educational and health outcomes, including improving academic achievement, attendance and student behavior at school, decreasing childhood food insecurity and promoting the consumption of more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk.

The USDA’s proposed revisions would align school nutrition standards more closely – but not completely – with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If the final rule follows the USDA’s proposal, schools will be required to gradually reduce sodium by 30% before fall 2029. For the first time, added sugars will be limited so that by fall 2027, on average, they will account for no more than 10% of total calories. The revisions are science-based and informed by nearly 100,000 public comments.


Many schools in Maine already serve healthier meals. From salsa made with student-grown tomatoes in Katahdin schools to sweet potato fries in Millinocket schools, school nutrition directors across the state are incorporating nutritious, local ingredients into their menus. Farm to school partnerships fill the schools’ salad bars with local produce. Local food manufacturers, including Maine Marinara and The Good Crust, supply products with Maine-grown ingredients to school districts, benefiting both our schools and local businesses.

Although the updated standards are designed with flexibility in mind, many schools will need help to put the standards into practice.

Fortunately, over $100 million in federal grants are available nationally for schools to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, connect with local food providers, upgrade facilities, hire additional staff and more. Twelve Maine school districts are receiving up to $150,000 each from this initiative. And Full Plates Full Potential will award up to $7.4 million to increase Maine-based foods in school meals and provide school nutrition professionals with the necessary resources and training.

We know school meals are a key source of nutrition for more than 50% of American schoolchildren, and the program has a demonstrated record of providing young people with nutritious food that sets them up for academic success and healthier eating habits. Embracing the upcoming revised nutrition standards and helping our schools implement them are logical, critical and necessary changes for all students’ health and education.

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