Make school meals free permanently

Sep 10, 2020

It is an established fact — and frankly common sense — that regular access to food improves student health, performance and outcomes later in life.

And for millions of students across the country, their school meals program is the only thing standing between them and an empty stomach.

Every barrier preventing a kid from getting a good meal keeps them from reaching their potential, with great costs to them and society at large. We should take those barriers down.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen the value of providing meals without strings attached. With schools closed and students home, the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived a number of requirements within the school meals program to allow for the broad distribution of meals. As a result, schools were allowed to provide free meals to-go to anyone age 18 or younger who wanted one.

In Maine alone, millions of much-needed meals were handed out.

The USDA planned to end those waivers this week, but after pressure from educators, advocates and lawmakers — including all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation — the waivers were extended through Dec. 31.

That’s not enough. It’s clear many students, perhaps most, will still be learning from home well into the New Year, and their meals should not be interrupted.

Besides, there should be universal free school meals, paid for by the federal government, at all times, even once the pandemic subsides. The value to students, schools and communities at large is just too high.

Roughly 22 million students nationwide qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school, including 43% of Maine students.

But not all of them regularly use the school meals program. What’s more, students who don’t qualify may still come from homes where there is not enough healthy food.

Stigma is the main reason hungry kids avoid school meals. Offering free meals for all students removes that stigma, allowing more students to get the sustenance they need to participate in school and grow into healthy adults.

Universal meal programs also free schools from the administrative burden of qualifying students, taking money and tracking down debt. That energy and funding could better be dedicated to improving school meals. Introducing students to new, healthy foods can have lifelong positive effects.

The pandemic has been hard on a lot of families, particularly those who were already struggling. There are signs that hunger is on the rise as these families have to choose which bills get paid and which don’t. More and more students will need school meals to fill the gap.

Ending the school meals waivers at the end of the calendar year would be devastating to those students.

Instead, the waivers should be kept in place for good, creating a universal meals program that would make for healthier students, and stronger schools and communities.

Reprinted with permission from the Portland Press Herald.

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