Public education is meant to be the great equalizer, but children know early and acutely what sets them apart from their peers. That includes economic disparities. They look askance at their scuffed thrift-store sneakers next to a classmate’s shiny Nikes. There might be no one at home after school to help with homework. The stomachs tucked against their desks each morning may be grumbling in hunger.
To educate them, we must feed them. Maine has decided to make it happen. The recently passed state budget makes school breakfast and lunch available to all Maine students for free. It’s a simple and sensible solution for what has become a convoluted system.
Until now, students could qualify for free and reduced lunch, but they had to prove their eligibility. Kids tote home forms asking about household income. Such forms have a tendency to be misplaced. Or adults in the household may be embarrassed to fill them out. Some families make too much to qualify, but live day-to-day in precarious financial situations.
And while every effort is made to protect the privacy of students who do receive free meals, kids have a way of knowing everything we would rather they did not know. There is a stigma attached.
Even with the likelihood of undercounting, the number of eligible Hancock County youngsters has been staggering. Just over 60 percent of students in the Deer Isle-Stonington schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to 2021 Maine Department of Education data. Half of kids in Regional School Unit 24 qualify along with 41 percent of RSU 25 students and 32 percent of students at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School. On Mount Desert Island, 24 percent of Pemetic Elementary students qualify. At Conners-Emerson and Mount Desert Elementary, the numbers are 13.7 and 9 percent, respectively.
Outstanding lunch bills at times have turned food program supervisors into the unenviable role of debt collectors. Teachers pay out of pocket for snacks so students can focus on their lessons and not their stomachs. In cash-strapped districts, too many costs have been pushed onto families and educators.
All students ride the school bus for free. They do not pay for textbooks or kickballs for gym. They should eat for free too — no questions asked. The security we give children today is the foundation for a successful adulthood.
Maine has gotten it right. As Amy Regan Gallant, the vice president of public policy and research at Good Shepherd Food Bank, told Maine Public, “It’s just one more piece of the puzzle to ending hunger in Maine. And it’s a huge piece of the puzzle to ending hunger in Maine.”
Now let’s find those other pieces.