School meals in Maine will be free for all students again this year and into the future, but parents are being urged to fill out meal benefit forms anyway.
The income information is linked to other resources school districts can access, from funding for Title I to after-school and summer programs and special education. The U.S. Department of Agriculture extended its free breakfast and lunch program through the 2021 to 2022 school year, and the Maine Legislature included free school meals for the future in the budget bill passed earlier this month.
Anna Korsen, advocacy director for Full Plates Full Potential, said while families don’t need to worry about being eligible for school meals, other state and federal resources are needed for students to thrive.
“It’s a big piece of helping your school,” Korsen asserted. “And it’s a way that families can make sure that all students in their school districts have access to educational resources, nutrition resources.”
Korsen added before the pandemic, nearly 45% of Maine kids were eligible for free meals, but many more students than expected participated when it was opened up to everyone.
Korsen argued having free school meals is a big step toward improving child food security in Maine overall. She pointed out eligibility requirements in the past did not always capture what the need truly was.
“When there’s stigma, a lot of food-insecure students just choose not to eat,” Korsen explained. “And when meals are provided free of charge to all students, more kids eat at school, especially the students who are experiencing food insecurity.”
Research shows when students are well-fed, their educational outcomes are much better. If a child is hungry, they may have a harder time focusing on the material in class.
Maine and California are the only two states so far to extend free school meals beyond the USDA extension, but there are calls in other states to follow their example.