Maine lawmakers moving to provide free meals for students

Maine lawmakers moving to provide free meals for students

June 9, 2021 0 By Christian Wade

Every public school student in Maine would be eligible to get free breakfast and lunch under a proposal sent to Gov. Janet Mills for consideration.

Supporters of the measure, LD 1679, which was approved by the state House of Representatives on Tuesday, say the move is crucial to helping tens of thousands of children facing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

“The pandemic reminded us how critical it is to make sure that students have the food they need, even when they aren’t in school,” state Rep. Suzanne Salisbury, D-Westbrook, said in remarks from the House floor in support of the bill. “Let’s take hunger off the table and get back to the business of educating our students.”

The legislation, filed by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, unanimously passed the Senate on Monday.

“Hunger is something that children just shouldn’t have to worry about,” Jackson said ahead of Monday’s vote. “Yet, too many kids go to school hungry and are expected to learn on an empty stomach. It’s really hard not to get choked up about it.”

If signed by Mills, the measure would require the state to cover the cost of breakfast or lunch for students who are ineligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Children would be eligible for free breakfast and lunch regardless of their economic status.

The Maine Department of Education estimates that the cost of providing free breakfast and lunch to public school students in the state will cost about $34 million a year.

About 80,000 students were eligible for free school meals in the previous school year, according to the state agency, but that number is likely much higher following the pandemic.

Students are currently eligible for free lunch and breakfast in the current school year under a waiver granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England, with one in six students lacking access to basic nutrition, according to the nonprofit group Feeding America.

James Myall, an analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, told the committee food insecurity can affect a child’s physical and mental health, academic achievement and future economic prosperity, all of which have broader societal effects.

“Studies show that such programs improve the health and well-being of low income students who might already be eligible but who are not receiving free meals, and on the higher-income students who become newly eligible for free meals,” Myall told members of the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs during a recent hearing on the bill.

“Over the longer term, this means better graduation rates and higher earnings in adulthood for these children,” he said.

Melissa Hackett of the Maine Children’s Alliance said providing free breakfast and lunch in public schools is an investment “that is long overdue.”

“Children do not have to pay to get a pencil or textbook for their reading and writing when they are at school. Buses pickup and drop off children, so transportation is not a barrier to their attendance. And when children are in school during regular mealtimes, they should not be expected to pay to eat,” she told the panel.

This article was originally posted on Maine lawmakers moving to provide free meals for students