Making sure students don’t go hungry this school year

By Sen. Jim Dill
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Maine, there were seemingly infinite aspects of our daily lives that had to be changed or stopped altogether. One of the most impactful changes that had to be made on a rapid basis was the end of in-person school for students across our state. While this move had a tremendous impact on children and their families in terms of how students would learn, it also raised the issue of how students would get the meals they received at school.

School meals are a critical but sometimes overlooked part of a students’ day-to-day life. In fact, roughly 43 percent of Maine students rely on school meals every day. Students receive meals through programs such as the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program and the Summer Food Service Program. For many children who come from low-income households, the food they receive at school could be the only complete meals they eat all day. Child hunger is a serious problem in Maine, and federally funded programs like these are critical to making sure children don’t go hungry and can learn and develop to their full potential.

Like many federal programs, there are certain standards and requirements that must be met to receive funding. For school meals, these are things like feeding students at certain times, providing the food in-school and having the food served in congregate settings. When schools across the country began to end in-person learning, these requirements were waived by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service division, which administers several of the programs and sets the guidelines for them. The waivers were necessary because students would no longer be in school, and getting everyone meals would require students taking them home with them.

This past spring, we saw an incredible effort from educators, parents and volunteers to make sure that even with students learning from home, they got the meals they needed. Folks set up meal pick-ups, drop-offs and worked overtime to make sure no student got missed. They set up tables outside and stood in the cold so parents and students could come get their meals. Among all the changes and uncertainty that was a part of our lives during this time, the effort to feed children was a truly remarkable display and showed how Mainers always come together when things need to get done. While I hope that the coming school year won’t be as challenging as what we experienced this past spring, we know it won’t be back to “normal” either.

That’s why when the waivers granted by the USDA were set to expire, I joined legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle to send a letter to the agency requesting that the waivers be extended. I was pleased to learn that since sending that letter, the USDA has agreed to extend the necessary waivers, allowing folks to get meals to students no matter what time of day and whether they are learning in school or at home.

Although learning is going to look very different this year, we absolutely must make sure that every student has plenty of food to learn and grow. Getting the waivers extended was a small step in that process, but it will take another big effort from school staff and folks in the community to make sure no child goes hungry. I have no doubt Mainers will once again step up to the challenges this fall.

As always, if I can be of assistance to you or your family, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You can send me an email at James.Dill@legislature.maine.gov or call my office at 287-1515.

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