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Free Meals Were Expanded To All Maine Students During The Pandemic. So Why Has Participation Fallen?

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public file
Deering High School workers assemble bag lunches in March 2020 from food dropped off by restaurants Little Giant and Chaval.

When the pandemic closed schools last spring, school nutrition departments swung into action. In only a few days, many opened meal distribution sites and began sending meals to students’ homes.

But as school districts have adopted hybrid schedules, distributing food to the estimated 60,000 Maine children at risk of hunger has been a difficult logistical challenge.

Alisa Roman, who is in charge of both the nutrition and transportation departments for the Lewiston School Department, says figuring out how to deliver food to thousands of students this fall — especially when half are at home each day — has required staff to rethink everything they do. They still serve meals at schools, but they also offer meal pickup sites around the city.

Because kids are only in school two days per week, Roman says the district sends them home with extra meals.

“So, on a given day, if it was Tuesday, and my staff were making the lunch for Tuesday, they’d also be making the lunch for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. So that’s four different entrees they’re still making. Plus for the kids that are in school, we have special diets,” she says. “So what that really means is my lunch people on any given day are doing, like, six different entrees, which is a lot of production in the kitchen. It’s not just making one dinner. You’re making six different dinners in a day.”

Despite the logistical headaches, Roman says changes to federal law have made school meals free for every student, regardless of income. Rules have also been relaxed to allow schools to partner with other organizations to set up pickup sites and deliver meals to students.

But Roman says even with those new options, hundreds of kids aren’t in school each day — and many aren’t getting school lunch.

“So in our district, we’re trying to keep volume by having those kids come in and participate with the food that we have. But you have the potential to lose a lot of the kids. And what does that mean for Lewiston? A 60% drop in participation in lunch,” she says. “Because we just have half our population not in the school. That’s a huge number.”

“We expected to change. I don’t think we expected this much of a decrease,” says Walter Beesley, director of child nutrition for the Maine Department of Education.

Beesley says in Nov. and Dec. 2020, schools in Maine served 30% fewer lunches than a year before. Breakfasts are also down 10%. He says the numbers are similar across the Northeast and around the country.

“I have somebody here now, that we’ve put on staff, that’s looking at what is actually going on, doing surveys and talking to schools to find out where the barriers are and what’s working for schools, so we can share this information with everybody,” he says. “You know, it’s always a concern when children aren’t getting their meals. And we don’t understand why, when you offer them a meal at no charge, why they’re not taking it. That’s kind of confusing for us.”

Part of the reason may be that parents don’t know what’s available. But schools say another reason is about logistics: hybrid schedules mean fewer kids are in school, and in some districts, buses that had been used to distribute meals to students’ houses last spring are now needed to pick up kids.

In addition to those challenges, school officials say many parents may not have enough time or ability to go to a pickup site and get a meal.

Jeanne Reilly, the school nutrition director for the Windham-Raymond School District, says there’s also a misconception about who’s eligible for free meals.

“Families have this, you know, ‘I don’t want to take it away. We don’t really need it. I don’t want to take it away from somebody who might need it more,’” she says. “They don’t understand that we can we have the capacity to feed every child.”

Despite those barriers, districts are still finding ways to get food to students. Many are continuing to offer curbside meal pickup services, and several districts say they’ve recently purchased new vans and refrigerated trucks to get more food to families.

Others say they’ve spent federal funds on new software to let families choose what meals they want online.

In MSAD 52, north of Lewiston, food services director David Roberts says his district has delivered more meals than it did last year, using several pickup sites and a delivery van.

“We’ve been able to keep the operation continuous. And again, we feel like that consistency is important, not only to the families, but just to the viability of the operation,” he says. “You’re establishing a service, and we want it to be dependable and consistent.”

But in Augusta, the decline in meals has led to a loss in revenue. School Nutrition Director Maureen Thompson says she recently had to lay off four staff members.

“We laid them off in September, October — we could see, it was happening then. Our numbers were low,” she says.

Thompson says she’d like to see schools fully reopen this fall, which would mean more students eating lunch in school every day. But she also hopes that that even after the pandemic, lawmakers can permanently make school meals free for every kid.

Thompson and other school officials say the past year has shown the need for providing food for children — whether they’re at home or at school.