You wouldn’t know it given the weather we’ve been having, but the fact is that the fall is coming, and back-to-school season is here. After a year and a half of big challenges, I know students, teachers and families are looking forward to a more traditional school year this fall. But as much as we would like to say goodbye to many of the changes that we’ve had to make due to the pandemic, there’s one great innovation that’s here to stay: This year, and every year moving forward, all Maine students – regardless of income – will have access to free school meals thanks to a measure passed by the Maine Legislature.
In Maine, one in six children experience food insecurity, meaning they don’t always know where their next meal will come from or when it will be. When kids go hungry, it’s much harder for them to learn, grow, and play the way kids deserve to be able to. Focusing on a school lesson is hard with a rumbling stomach and playing during recess or during afterschool practice is impossible if you don’t have any energy. When schools provide free meals to all kids, even those who don’t always have a full pantry at home can count on being well-fed during the week.
You may be asking why universal free school meals are so important if we already offer free or reduced-price meals for low-income students. In the past, students have qualified for these meals when their families fill out forms about their finances and bring them to the school. But it can be hard to ask for help, and some families are reluctant to admit that they need assistance. On top of that, students often don’t want their peers to know that they’re getting a free or reduced-price meal, and so they forgo a meal altogether to avoid real or perceived judgement by their classmates. And then there are families who don’t qualify on paper, but who still struggle to put food on the table through no fault of their own. I’ve spent much of my time and energy as a legislator making sure no Maine kids slip through the cracks and providing universal free school meals is an important step in ensuring no child is forgotten.
Even though school meals will be free for everyone, it’s still important to fill out all the forms your child brings home. These forms allow the government to get an accurate snapshot of a school and its needs, so the school can get necessary resources to provide for its students. Be sure to complete the forms your child brings home this fall or visit www.maine.gov/doe/schools/nutrition/studenteligibility to fill them out electronically.
This new law is a big step forward for Maine kids, and it’s complemented by another policy the Maine Legislature passed this year. We expanded the Local Foods Fund, which allows schools to purchase locally produced food like fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and value-added dairy directly from local farms and food distributors. This program is a win-win; not only does it put more nutritious food on our students’ lunch trays, it broadens the market for farmers in our community so they have more places to sell their goods.
In addition to these innovative programs, the Legislature also made historic investments in Maine’s educational system. For the first time since voters mandated it back in 2004, the state will be fulfilling its obligation to fund 55 percent of K-12 education in our state. This is critical to making sure schools have the resources they need, while taking pressure off property taxpayers in the school district. The Legislature also supported postsecondary students who are pursuing college degrees or professional training programs by investing in the University of Maine and Community College Systems to keep tuition costs down.
Maine’s kids are Maine’s future, and it’s so critical that they have the nutritional and educational foundations they need to build happy, healthy, and successful lives. I’m proud of the policies we passed this year to do just that. As you and your family get ready for another school year, I hope you’ll see the impact these new laws have in your lives. And if there’s ever anything I can do to help, never hesitate to reach out to me. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call my office at 207-287-1515. <