Health

Maine's Budget Bill Includes Free School Meals For Every Student - What That Means For Maine Children

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Students eat breakfast at the Blueberry Harvest School at Harrington Elementary School in Harrington, Maine.

The budget bill passed by Maine lawmakers last week has been lauded for including additional school funding and $300 direct payments to many Maine workers. But it also included money to provide free school meals to every student. Maine is one of the first states in the country to take this step. For more about what this means, reporter Robbie Feinberg spoke with Amy Regan Gallant​, the vice president of public policy and research at Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Robbie Feinberg: Can you give us an overview of what this policy really does mean for students in schools in Maine?

Amy Regan Gallant: This is one of the most historic and impactful policies I have ever had the honor of working on. It will make such a big difference to teachers who are spending their own money providing community snacks and drawers full of food for kids who forget their food or don't have it to bring in, it will make a huge difference to kids. Both both the kids who already are eligible for free and reduced meals. And for kids who are not eligible for free and reduced meals.

According to some recent estimates up to about one in four children in Maine is considered food insecure. So when we talk about a policy change like this one, can it actually make much of a dent in such a large issue?

If we do the math, there's new law if we multiply breakfast and lunch, so two meals a day, times 175 school days times 160,000 kids, we are now providing 56 million meals for free for Maine kids. And that is something to celebrate. We are hoping that it will lift the burden of those meals for families who are accessing our services, our pantry network, so that they don't have to rely so heavily on those pantries. If a family is receiving SNAP and is receiving school meals for free, maybe that family will be able to not have to go to the pantry as often or go for fresh veggies or something like that when we have them through our Mainers feeding Mainers program. And they can rely on the school meals and they can use their snack for things that they can't necessarily get at the pantry. And it's just one more piece of the puzzle to ending hunger in Maine. And it's a huge piece of the puzzle to ending hunger in Maine.

And in testimony on this issue, you've noted that this change won't just mean more meals going to kids who weren't eligible before. But you've noted that it could also just get rid of a lot of barriers that may be keeping eligible students from getting meals as well. What kinds of barriers are you talking about there?

So it's really important for families to fill out those forms that in most cases come home through a backpack that the parents fill out their income eligibility for the household, and then they send it back through the backpack. That's a huge barrier for eligible kids to be enrolled in the program is that form being passed through a backpack. Families feel stigmatized when they have to provide such personal demographic information. The forms can get misplaced between the school and the backpack, the home and the backpack, and back to the administrators. And even when kids are deemed eligible, there's always going to be stigma around the kids who get the free or reduced meals.

It's interesting to look at the actual vote in the legislature on this issue where both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly voted to support a universal school meals bill this year, which is a bit surprising considering how partisan so many issues can be. And I wonder the bill that comes on the heels of the federal government actually paying for free meals for all students during the pandemic? Do you feel like that experience over the past year plus has made more people and politicians see the value in school meals and want that to continue?

Absolutely. We know, based on research, and proven through the last couple of years with COVID, or the last year and a half with COVID that if kids are fed, if they start their school day with a with a good breakfast at school, and if everyone can have access to that breakfast? Well, first of all, if everyone can have access to that breakfast, and particularly if it's a model that's called "breakfast in the classroom," so they go into their classroom, everybody gets a breakfast and everybody gets to eat. There's no stigma around that. We know that behavior issues decrease. It reduces the number of kids who are going down to the nurse with a tummy ache or a headache. It increases attendance. It increases the longevity of kids being in school if families are struggling And financially to keep their kids in school and they know that their kiddo is going to get free breakfast, free lunch. That right there is enough of an incentive to increase the attendance of that child for more years in the education system. This is historic. It's tremendous. It's impactful. I don't know how I will ever work on another policy that's more meaningful for the families of Maine.

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