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As a longtime school nutrition director, Mary Emerson can recall countless times when she’s seen students not eating in the cafeteria and they’ve told her their family can’t afford a school meal.
“I have a lot of experience over the years walking into cafeterias and seeing kids not eating a meal because, ‘My parent would be angry if I ate a school lunch. We can’t afford it,’” said Emerson, who works in the Westbrook School Department.
The example is just one instance of how students around the country are struggling with food insecurity, a problem that has only grown worse during the coronavirus pandemic but that some states, including Maine, are now taking major steps to address.
For the last year the federal government has stepped in to provide free breakfast and lunch for all students, and it plans to continue that program through 2021-22. The effort has highlighted the importance of providing meals to all students, not just those who meet income eligibility requirements.
Now Maine and California have became the first states to announce plans to continue free meals in 2022-23 and beyond.
“There has definitely been a big push in this direction, in part because of the waivers the USDA provided to schools during the pandemic to allow meal service for free for all students,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit advocating for high-quality, low-cost meals for students nationwide.
“We’ve seen such tremendous benefits associated with offering meals to students and giving them the choice to take them. It really makes sure every child who needs that meal and who depends on school meals gets those meals.”
Making school meals free for all students could dramatically improve access to healthy food for thousands of Maine children. According to the Maine Department of Education, about 38 percent, or 65,000 students, are currently eligible for free or reduced price meals.
But the updated state budget approved last month incorporates language into statute that will provide for universal free meals for all after the federal waivers end. As part of the budget the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has created a designated fund at the Department of Education called the Meals for Students Fund, which will help pay the difference between the federal reimbursements the state gets for free meals and the cost of school meals for all.
The move is being hailed as a game changer by child hunger advocates. They say the current school meal program overlooks students whose families may not qualify based on income or who are experiencing other circumstances, such as lack of transportation or the cost of medical bills, that are interfering with their access to healthy food.
“This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Anna Korsen, director of advocacy for Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in Maine. Over the last year, Korsen said some districts where childhood hunger was thought to be less prevalent saw huge increases in participation for school meals when the federal government made them free for all.
“I think it shows how many families are living right on that edge of really needing help,” she said. “Having a school meal available – breakfast and lunch every day – for your kids can really help as far as food and financial security.”
Deborah Jendrasko, a cafeteria worker in Portland Public Schools, said she’s seen a definite need for school meals during the pandemic and doesn’t expect it to subside anytime soon. About 48 percent of students in Portland qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
“I feel like we’re still not through this,” Jendrasko said one morning last week as she worked preparing and distributing breakfasts for the district’s summer meals program. “Even though there are signs of getting through this, there’s still a need, and if we’re able to (continue providing free meals) I think it’s a good thing.”
A student is currently eligible for a free meal if their annual household income is $34,450 or less for a family of four. But family income isn’t the only factor that determines whether a student might be going hungry, and the income eligibility levels are low enough that some families who are struggling financially may not qualify.
Emerson, the school nutrition director in Westbrook, has long felt school meals should be free for all students. About 60 percent of students in the district currently qualify for free or reduced price meals. But Emerson said there are many families in need who don’t meet the income eligibility requirements.
“I think in Maine we get hit even more because we have the high cost of heating oil,” Emerson said. “We’re the last stop for food trucks coming through. Our (cost of) food is higher. It costs money to live in the state of Maine. … You have to buy snow tires, winter coats and boots for your kids and the heating oil to keep your home warm. It costs more and food isn’t grown here in the winter.”
Across the country, cost has been a barrier to providing free school meals, although states and the federal government have taken incremental steps toward expanding access. In 2010 the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act created the Community Eligibility Provision allowing schools in low-income areas to provide free meals to all without having to collect individual applications for free and reduced-price lunch. President Biden’s American Families Plan unveiled last week would expand that program to allow more schools to participate at higher reimbursement rates.
There’s also proposed federal legislation, the Universal School Meals Act of 2021 – introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; and Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. – that would expand on the USDA’s free meal program offered during the pandemic to offer free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack to all schoolchildren regardless of income.
Pratt-Heavner, the spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, said the association has been advocating for the bill and the passage of universal meals on a federal level.
“I think families and schools have realized how valuable free meal service has been over the last few years and it’s going to be very difficult if schools have to go back to this burdensome application process and charging families for this service once the pandemic waivers have expired,” she said. “I think there are a lot of states and the federal government that are looking ahead and thinking about the need to keep this free meal service available.”
In Maine, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, sponsored legislation that served as the basis for the language in the budget bill and that received strong bipartisan support. Dozens of proponents of Jackson’s bill testified this past spring, saying free meals for all will reduce the stigma that free meals are only for low-income students and prevent school districts from racking up debt from students who don’t pay their lunch bills.
No one testified against the bill, though the Maine School Management Association did express concern about school districts facing increased labor costs associated with preparing and serving more school meals.
While food insecurity has long been a problem, Jackson said it wasn’t until the pandemic, when he saw coolers lining the sides of the road – where school staff were dropping off meals for students learning from home – that the severity of the issue hit him.
“At first I didn’t know why they were there, but they were delivering meals into those coolers because those families depended on those meals for their kids,” Jackson said. “It just seemed like for the cost of what it will take to cover every child, it’s well worth the effort.”
Exactly how much it will cost to provide free school meals for all remains to be seen. Jackson’s legislation included a fiscal note estimating the annual cost at around $34 million, though he said he believes the cost could be lower, around $15 million or $20 million. Either way, he said it will be money well spent.
“I don’t think it will be nearly what some people might think,” Jackson said. “I think each individual school district is going to save money and resources, and again, I think it’s better policy.”