Food Insecurity in Maine: Part Two

One in five children in Maine are living in a food insecure home.

To help ensure kids are getting the nutrition they need, some school districts have started offering free lunch and breakfast to all schools regardless of their families' income.

The Community Eligibility Provision, or C.E.P., provides an alternative approach for offering school meals in low income communities instead of collecting individual applications for free and reduced meals.

"Some students we know come to school on Monday and haven't had a meal since they left us on Friday."

Laura Pineo is the Director of School Nutrition for RSU 54, which includes the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan, and Smithfield.

Now in its fourth year of taking advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision as part of the National School Lunch & Breakfast Program, the school district is seeing the benefits of feeding as many students as possible healthy and nutritious meals daily.

Schools with more than 40% of their student body eligible for some sort of lunch benefit qualify for the CEP, which allows them to remove the stigma of free lunches by feeding all students at no charge.

"That allows us to feed all of our students at no cost to the families, so we capture those students that are most at need, those students that are in the gap that may almost be able to have lunch at no cost but really can't afford to pay for lunch, and then of course our other students. We're really covering that whole spectrum," said Pineo.

"Changing faster than anything else is the free rate not the reduced rate, so it's going from paid to free very fast," said Walter Beesley, Director of Child Nutrition with the Department of Education.

22 Maine school districts are currently participating in the program.

Beesley says ensuring students are fed is beneficial to the child, the family, and the school. He says fighting student hunger helps reduce disciplinary issues, trips to the nurses station for those complaining about stomach pains or headaches, and helps improve academic performance.

"You have higher test scores, that's been proven around the country as well where the students are ready to learn," said Beesley.

Well fed students also help reduce the financial burden of parents. While a couple dollars a day for lunch may not seem like much to many, that can add up quickly for an under-employed family in a low-income community.

"If we're providing those meals for their kids then they're not spending that $3 a day for a child, which is $15 a week. That $15 a week times 52 weeks is a significant amount of money that they can then put into their food bill for evenings and weekends," said Pineo.

One of the challenges school administrators, local food pantries, and larger hunger organizations have come across is how to feed children when school isn't in session.

"But then they go home evenings, and weekends, and school vacations, and they don't always have enough food, so that's where the charitable organizations come in like the backpack programs and the school pantry programs," said Clara Whitney, Director of Public Affairs for the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

The state continues to expand its summer food service program with sites in every county now.

"That program is probably the most underutilized program. That program is set up so it's in areas of need and children can go to this site and get lunch or breakfast, whichever is served, at no cost and no requirements, no strings attached. Even if they're not living in that community, they can still go in and participate," said Beesley.

The Community Eligibility Provision is expected to expand throughout the state as food insecurity continues to increase in Maine.

Pineo hopes that one day, a community's economic reality doesn't dictate whether a child can eat for free at school.

"My real dream is that we don't charge any child for a meal at school ever," said Pineo.

More than 70 schools in Maine are currently taking advantage of the C.E.P., with more expected to take part next year.