May 20—Throughout the pandemic, public schools across Maine and the country have been able to offer breakfast or lunch free of charge to any student who wants it.
Even though the Biden administration announced last month that will continue through the next school year, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson wants to make the option permanent here.
"As a lawmaker, and more importantly as a parent, I want our kids to get a chance to focus on being kids, on playing with friends and learning how to read, not worrying about where their next meal will come from," Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash, said at a virtual news conference shortly Thursday before a public hearing on his bill. "It's not just the right thing to do, but studies show it improves academic outcomes, attendance and so many other things that are hard to quantify."
One of the biggest potential benefits of offering breakfast and lunch at no cost to students is that it would create equity and eliminate stigma that often exists for those who have to identify as eligible for free or reduced lunch in front of peers.
"Students were bullied because they were not able to afford school lunch and had to receive free lunch for the year. Some would not go get the free lunch in fear of being bullied," a Sanford High School student said in written testimony in support of Jackson's bill. "Can you imagine feeling that way everyday because you can't afford to buy breakfast or lunch? Why make a student feel like that when there are so many other things to worry about like passing classes, graduating and preparing for the future after graduation? School is very stressful enough with all the pressure that's happening today."
Jackson's bill would require the state to pay the amount above what the federal government provides to cover the costs of free and reduced breakfast or lunch for eligible families. According to the most recent data, roughly 44 percent of Maine's 180,000 public school students qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch, which means their household income is at least 130 percent (for free) or 180 percent (for reduced) of the federal poverty guidelines.
For families that are just outside those thresholds, the full cost can be high, as much as $20 per week per child.
The bill, L.D. 1679, also asks schools and school administrative units to request that parents and guardians still fill out household income forms to determine eligibility, since that's how Maine's share of federal funding is set.
Jackson said he didn't have a final estimate for what his bill would cost, but he argued that it would be negligible compared to the impact on learning. He also said the federal government will still cover much of the cost.
At least one Republican, Sen. Matt Pouliot of Augusta, offered full-throated support. Pouliot said when he was growing up, he and his sister qualified for the lunch program and without it, he would have gone without meals.
He said that as a Republican he believes in personal responsibility, but children can't be faulted for their parents' financial situation.
"I hope other Republicans join me (in support)," he said.
During the public hearing, more than two dozen school parents, students and school staff spoke or provided written testimony in support.
A Windham High School student wrote that she has had to forgo meals because she didn't have enough money in her account to buy food.
"It's embarrassing to be told you can't get water or a fruit. I'm a part of a student body where hunger is a big issue and nobody has tried to help," she said. "From the kids who are too embarrassed or the kids who get made fun of, nobody has stuck up for them. I believe the legislation being presented would be an amazing legacy for Maine."
A freshman at Sanford High School said school meals are sometimes the only food kids get during the day.
"If they don't have enough money, they don't get food and that's not fair," she said. "Also it's just embarrassing. Imagine seeing everyone eating the same food and then there's that one kid that doesn't get any food because he doesn't have enough money. They have to pretend they're not hungry. It's horrible and embarrassing. Lunch can be the worst part of the day for someone and this is just one example of why."
Jackson said families of public school students aren't asked to pay extra for transportation, or for books or other materials, so why should they for food? He said there can be real consequences for children who have to disclose that they are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
In supportive testimony, the Maine Principals' Association agreed that offering breakfast and lunch to anyone removes the stigma for those who qualify.
Additionally, Justin Strasburger with Full Plates Full Potential, a Portland-based nonprofit devoted to ending childhood hunger, said not enough people are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
"The eligibility doesn't always match reality," he said, pointing out that a family of four with two parents who work minimum wage jobs would not be eligible.
Holly McLain, a parent of four children in Rockland, said she grew up in a small town where many kids were poor.
"I can especially remember one kid at my school who was always bullied and shamed for being poor. I remember watching him walk by me on the bus and noticing that he looked like a ghost — so skinny and pale. Since I knew what it felt like to be hungry, I didn't want him to feel the same thing. When we had extra snacks in my house, which wasn't often, I would sneak them to school and give them to him.
"Now as a mother of four children. I can still remember that hungry child and I am grateful that we have programs like the school lunch program in place to help families. Without these programs many children would go hungry."
Jackson's bill will be scheduled for a work session in the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee before it is voted out and goes to the full legislature.