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Educators say free meals have changed attitudes in Maine's school cafeterias

Workers prepare meals as part of a training at Windham High School.
Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Workers prepare meals as part of a training at Windham High School.

When the pandemic upended schools two years ago, the federal government took the step of providing universal school meal waivers nationwide, in effect making meals free for every child. This fall, those waivers are ending. But a few states, including Maine, have decided to continue providing free meals to every public school student.

Local officials say that has created some challenges — but also changed attitudes within lunchrooms across the state, for the better.

Inside the cafeteria at Windham High School, workers slice green onions and whisk together sauces as part of their training to get ready for the upcoming school year. The district prides itself on expanding its offerings beyond the traditional school lunch, like making poke bowls using fresh fish.

Nutrition Director Jeanne Reilly said providing meals to a district with more than 3,000 students is a big operation. The kitchen operation went into overdrive during the pandemic, when the district sprung into action to deliver meals to kids at home. Even with kids now back in the classroom, Reilly said the work is still substantial.

"We are so busy," Reilly said. "And the volume of food that we're going through is just unbelievable. We're always running out, not being able to fully anticipate how many meals we're going to serve. Because we've never been able to offer meals for free, to our entire student body, all at once."

During the last school year, the district served about 45% more meals than it did before the pandemic.

State officials estimate that with universal school meal waivers in place, districts across Maine provided 3 million more meals last year.

"Once the pandemic hit, and these waivers came out, I think it just thrust to the forefront, just how important these meals are, how many kids and families rely on these meals," said Justin Strasburger, the executive director of the nonprofit Full Plates Full Potential.

Strasburger said the pandemic made clear that meals are as essential as buses or books in a state where one in five children is food insecure. And that experience, he said, was a big reason that Maine lawmakers ultimately voted to make school meals free for every public school student, at an estimated cost of around $34 million per year.

"I think the political will was there, in part, because we were able to make the argument of, 'Listen, we've been doing this for a year-and-a-half, two years at this point. Why would we go back?' It makes no sense to go back," he said.

Workers prepare meals as part of a training at Windham High School.
Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Workers prepare meals as part of a training at Windham High School.

Beyond the numbers, educators and students say the changes have already shifted the attitude towards school meals within their classrooms and cafeterias.

Elizabeth Moran, a teacher at Windham High School, said in past years, students who qualified for free or reduced price meals, based on family income, would often refuse them because of the stigma. She said now, breakfast and lunch are just part of the day.

"I think the teachers almost helped with the structure of that," Moran said. And the culture of, 'Alright, it's lunchtime. We're all going to get food. We're all going to get something to it.' And it just became the norm."

Sometimes, if a kid is irritable or acting up in class, Moran said she may send them to go get a free breakfast. When they come back, she said, they're often more calm and focused.

"Then it's awesome, because it lets them take a walk. They get to clear their head. They get something in their bellies. It's all good," she said.

Moran's daughter, fourth-grader Caroline Hangge, said free meals have become such a part of life at school that it's tough to imagine a day without them.

"Everybody has to have food. And it's nice that it's free. Nobody should have to pay for, like, needs," Hangge said.

But districts are still working through some unintended consequences of the change. Schools say it's been tough to find enough workers — and food — to keep up with the surge in demand.

And because all school meals are now free, fewer parents are filling out meal benefit application forms. State education officials say those forms are still vital, as data from the applications is used to determine everything from grant eligibility to funding for federal Title I programs and before and after school programming.

This fall, schools and organizations have partnered to try to get the word out about the importance of the forms, as school nutrition workers are visiting open houses and community fairs, forms in hand.

At Windham High School, Nutrition Director Jeanne Reilly said the continuation of free school meals will also provide some relief at a time when inflation is taking its toll on household food budgets.

"But this is a savings for families. Being able to take advantage of this meal program, breakfast and lunch, at no cost really allows them some more flexibility to be able to afford the meals that they do have to provide at home," Reilly said.

Reilly estimates that about 60% of the kids in her district are eating school meals right now, and she could see even more taking advantage of the program in the months ahead.