Educators say free meals have changed attitudes in Maine school cafeterias

When the pandemic upended schools two years ago, the federal government took the step of providing universal school lunch waivers nationwide, making meals free for every child. This fall, these exemptions end. But a few states, including Maine, have decided to continue providing free lunches to all public school students.

Local officials said that created challenges — but also changed attitudes in dining halls across the state, for the better.

Inside the cafeteria at Windham High School, workers are slicing green onions and mixing sauces as part of their training to prepare for the upcoming school year. The neighborhood is proud to expand its offerings beyond the traditional school lunch, such as making poke bowls with fresh fish.

Nutrition director Jeanne Reilly said providing meals for a district of more than 3,000 students is a big deal. The kitchen operation accelerated during the pandemic, when the district sprang into action to deliver meals to children at home. Even with the kids now back in class, Reilly said the work is still important.

“We’re so busy,” Reilly said. “And the volume of food we go through is just amazing. We are always short, not being able to fully anticipate the number of meals we are going to serve. Because we have never been able to offer free meals to all of our student population at one time.

In the past school year, the district served about 45% more meals than before the pandemic.

State officials estimate that with universal school lunch waivers in place, Maine districts provided an additional 3 million meals last year.

“Once the pandemic hit and these waivers came out, I think it came to the fore, how important these meals are, how many children and families depend on these meals,” Justin said. Strasburger, executive director of the nonprofit organization Full Plaques Plein Potentiel.

Strasburger said the pandemic has made it clear that meals are as essential as buses or books in a state where 1 in 5 children are food insecure. And that experience, he said, was a key reason Maine lawmakers ultimately voted to make school lunches free for all public school students, at an estimated cost of about $34 million a year. year.

“I think the political will was there, in part, because we were able to make the argument, ‘Look, we’ve been doing this for a year and a half, two years at this point. Why would we go back? It makes no sense to go back,” he said.

Beyond the numbers, educators and students said the changes have already changed attitudes towards school meals in their classrooms and cafeterias.

Elizabeth Moran, a teacher at Windham High School, has said in recent years that students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, based on family income, often turn them down because of stigma. She said now breakfast and lunch are only part of the day.

“I think the teachers almost helped structure this,” Moran said. And the culture of “Okay, it’s time for lunch”. We are all going to eat. We’re all going to get something out of it. And it has become the norm. »

Sometimes, if a child is irritable or acting out in class, Moran says she can send them for free breakfast. When they return, she says, they are often calmer and more focused.

“So it’s great, because it allows them to walk around. They manage to clear their heads. They have something in their stomach. Everything is fine,” she said.

Moran’s daughter Caroline Hangge, a fourth-grader, said free lunches were such a part of school life that it was hard to imagine a day without them.

“Everyone has to eat. And it’s good that it’s free. No one should have to pay for, for example, necessities,” Hangge said.

But the districts are still working on some unintended consequences of the change. Schools said it was difficult to find enough workers – and food – to meet the increased demand.

And since all school meals are now free, fewer parents are filling out meal allowance application forms. State education officials said these forms are still essential because application data is used to determine everything from grant eligibility to funding for federal Title I programs and before-and-after programs. school.

This fall, schools and organizations have teamed up to try to spread the word about the importance of forms, as school nutrition workers visit open houses and community fairs, forms in hand.

At Windham High School, nutrition director Jeanne Reilly said the continuation of free school meals will also bring some relief at a time when inflation is weighing heavily on household food budgets.

“But it’s a saving for families. Being able to take advantage of this meal plan, breakfast and lunch, at no cost really allows them more flexibility to be able to afford the meals they need to provide at home,” Reilly said.

Reilly estimates that about 60% of children in her district currently eat at school, and she could see even more taking advantage of the program in the coming months.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

Christy J. Olson