Bill aims to boost access to healthy school lunch

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FALMOUTH — School nutritionists agree that anything the state can do to reduce or eliminate the barriers to nutritious school meals is worth pursuing.

That’s why they’re supporting a bill introduced by state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, that initially sought to entirely remove the 40-cent cost to buy lunch for students who are part of the federally subsidized reduced lunch program.

In support of her bill, LD 816, “An Act to Promote Academic Achievement through Hunger Relief for Maine Children,” Breen told the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that “without access to healthy school meals during the day, students’ ability to focus, learn and perform is compromised.”

“Study after study shows that hungry kids cannot learn as well as their well-nourished peers,” Breen told the committee April 7. “Children who do not have access to sufficient food have significantly lower math scores are more likely to repeat a grade, to have required the services of a psychologist and to have difficulty getting along with other children.”

She added that lifting the reduced price category for school lunches would “remove any financial barriers to food access” for low-income students. And, Breen argued, “This small amount of state funding will have a positive impact on student academic performance and success.”

The committee agreed with Breen and the others who testified in support of her bill, but decided to amend it to still require students under the reduced lunch program to pay 20 cents toward the cost of their school meal.

Under the bill as now unanimously recommended to the full Legislature, schools across Maine would be reimbursed from the state’s general fund for the difference between what the federal government and the individual students pay, Breen said in a press release.

“Everyone involved in negotiating the details of this legislation put the interests of Maine’s students first, and the result is a plan that will significantly reduce barriers to nutrition for kids at risk of serious hunger,” Breen said.

Children are eligible for a reduced-price lunch if their family income is below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Breen said that equates to 85,000 students around the state, including about 20 from Falmouth.

Her senate district also includes Yarmouth, Cumberland, Gray, Long Island, Chebeague Island and part of Westbrook.

She argued that most of the families who qualify are working families who are often forced to make a choice between housing, heat, transportation and other costs, meaning they simply can’t afford to purchase a school lunch for their children, even at the low cost of $2 a week.

Jeanne Reilly, president of the Maine School Nutrition Association and the director of school nutrition for Regional School Unit 14 in Windham, said that even spending 40 cents a day on lunch can be “a huge challenge for families who live on the brink of poverty.”

Reilly said that even reducing the out-of-pocket expense from 40 to 20 cents would “absolutely make a difference.” A family with two children paying reduced price for lunch pays $140 per year, “which translates into a week or two of groceries,” she said

Under the federal reduced lunch program, Reilly said school districts receive a $2.82 reimbursement per lunch, which is supposed to cover the entire cost of the meal, from food purchasing to preparation. But, she noted, “School meals have changed significantly in the past 10 to 15 years and (have now become) a great source of nutritious, delicious food.”

In RSU 14, and many other school districts across the state, the focus has shifted to “serving healthy, whole foods, often sourced locally, and prepared on site,” Reilly added. “We (also) offer food and nutrition education in the classroom (and) truly believe that we are feeding the future and hopefully influencing the way children and their families eat.”

She supports Breen’s bill, even in its amended form, and said, “Any time we can feed hungry students healthy food, while at the same time supporting families that are experiencing food insecurity, we feel the cause is worthwhile.”

“Many of our families that struggle with outstanding school meal account balances are families that are making daily decisions about whether to purchase medication, pay medical bills, fix their cars or put food on their tables at home,” Reilly said. “Removing the burden of paying for school meals promotes good nutrition for children, supports education and supports families.”

The Maine School Nutrition Association consists of professionals in the school nutrition community and it’s “committed to feeding the students in Maine schools healthy, nutritious food so that they are well fed and ready to learn,” according to Reilly. Overall, she said the organization’s goal is to end childhood hunger in Maine.

Martha Poliquin, the school food service director in Falmouth, said “Any reduction in the amount a family in need has to pay for school meals would make a difference. I often see families struggle to pay even the 40-cent per meal” cost.

“School nutrition workers care deeply about feeding children healthful meals,” she added. “There are many reasons why a child may come to school hungry and we should do everything we can to feed a child’s growing body, just as teachers do everything they can to feed a child’s growing mind.”

Claire Berkowitz, the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, agreed and said in her testimony to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee last week that “It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach.”

“In fact,” she said, “it’s hard to do much of anything on an empty stomach. When our children have access to reliable, nutritious food, they are better able to play, learn and grow.”

Berkowitz said that 6 percent of Maine students are eligible for a reduced lunch, but “too often these students are caught in the gap between not being able to afford lunch and not being poor enough to qualify for” a free one.

So, “instead of paying attention in class, these children are distracted by hunger, and it affects their education. Research tells us that hunger (directly) impacts learning and academic achievement.”

This bill “aims to reduce the number of children going to class hungry by making (a) simple change,” Berkowitz said. “Let’s provide low-income students with access to nutritious meals so that they can focus on learning rather than an empty stomach.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

An example of a healthy school lunch in Falmouth that features Maine-grown ingredients.