In this May 4, 2017, file photo, a third-grader punches in her student identification to pay for a meal at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Credit: Morgan Lee / AP

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Heather Whitaker is the 2020 Maine Teacher of the Year and is an Alternative Education Teacher at Gorham Middle School. Kevin Concannon of Cape Elizabeth served as the under secretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Obama administration.

During the pandemic, school breakfast and lunch programs were expanded and free meals were available to all Maine students, regardless of income. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended this flexibility through the end of September, greatly benefiting struggling families. Though these measures were put in place due to COVID-19, we believe that school meals at no cost should be a permanent solution. Maine should lead the way and be the first in the nation to offer school meals for all Maine students.

Studies repeatedly show that when children access nutritious food at school, they are better able to concentrate, leading to improved academic outcomes. They show up to school more often and on time. They make fewer visits to the nurse’s office due to hunger-related headaches and stomachaches. Principals report a reduction in behavioral issues. Graduation rates improve. Childhood instances of obesity and diabetes drop. When a child is well-fed at school, that school is taking steps to address the whole child: physical, social, and emotional well-being are greatly improved.

For too many students, school meals are their most reliable source of nutrition. Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to “school lunch” and that decreases participation in the program. The school lunch line is often the first place a child becomes aware of their socioeconomic status. Unintentionally, the cafeteria may seem like a space divided by social class, where children are categorized by their family’s income: some get free meals, others pay a reduced price and others pay full price for meals.

While steps have been taken to make these differences less noticeable, the correlation between a family’s income and the type of food available to the student has always, unfortunately, been a part of school culture. Ideally, the school cafeteria would be a safe, nurturing environment where students enjoy a meal with their friends — free of the stigma of what their family can afford.

School meals for all eliminates this barrier to healthy, nutritious food. Even in Maine, the negative perception of receiving a free or reduced lunch remains pervasive, which can sadly result in children foregoing a nutritious meal — even if it’s the only one they’ll get all day.

The root of this issue is inequity and the pandemic has exacerbated the economic and opportunity gaps in our state. Instead of a program targeting low-income children, school meals should be a valued part of the school day for every child. Furthermore, food insecurity is complicated and is not always connected to a family’s income level. There are children in our communities who experience food insecurity for reasons other than poverty. By tying school meals to income, we miss the opportunity to support these students.

Think about it: school meals are the only part of the core school day for which we expect households to pay additional funds. Schools don’t collect fare to ride the school bus, nor do they expect a child to pay for books or technology. Children spend the majority of their time in school, and therefore schools should ensure access to the most basic of needs during the school day.

Let’s take a stand here in Maine, a stand for equity and for the future of our state. Let’s invest in basic needs and support the well-being of all Maine students. Let Maine be the first in the nation to feed every child at school by offering nutritious meals at no cost. School meals for all Maine students should reflect Maine’s commitment to fairness, health, and successful learning. The implementation of this program will benefit the communities of Maine for years to come. By doing this, we are literally investing in the future, one meal at a time.

Our Maine Legislature is working to make this a reality in all Maine schools with a School Meals for All bill. Let’s live up to Maine’s motto — Dirigo, I lead — by enacting this needed solution for Maine’s children.