SKOWHEGAN, Maine — In Maine this week, tens of thousands of school children are headed back to class. And many of those kids may be getting on the morning bus with an empty stomach. By some estimates, nearly one in four Maine children live in homes where the food supply is uncertain, and educators in some of Maine's poorest communities are looking to a new federal program that offers free lunch and free breakfast to all students, regardless of income.
It's the first lunch shift at Skowhegan Area High School, and kids are flooding into the cafeteria, grabbing pink and blue plastic trays and hurrying through the hot-lunch line. On the way, kids can select from a bowl of fruit containing apples, nectarines and plums. Judging by the eager pile up, kitchen staffer Laurie Lightbody says today's menu seems to be especially popular.
"The main course is the pizza and then we always have the sandwich bar, and fruits and veggies, salad bar," she says.
This year, all 2,600 students in the district are eligible to eat this lunch — as well as breakfast — free of charge thanks to a new program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under a provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, certain school districts can provide free meals to all of its students without collecting subsidy applications from parents. The school tallies up how many meals it serves each day and then files a monthly report to USDA, which then reimburses the cost of providing those meals.
After piloting the program at several urban school districts throughout the country three years ago, it's now available for the first time in New England. School Administrative District 54 — made up of Skowhegan, Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock and Smithfield — is one of six entities participating in Maine.
"We know that we have students in our district that, the only meals that they eat every day are the meals we provide for them," says Laura Pineo, who directs the district's nutrition program. She says that to be eligible for the new USDA program, a district or individual school has to show that that 40 percent of its students are eligible for free meals through the existing reduced-price and free lunch programs. Pineo says the Skowhegan area easily qualifies, as more than half of its students get subsidized lunches.
"We've seen the shoe shops close in this area, paper mills have closed," Pineo says. "Those type of manual labor jobs that people relied on for years have gone away."
In order to qualify for reduced-price lunch under the school's former program, a family of four would need to make no more than $20,000 per year. But with lunch for two kids in the school system costing about $1,000 per school year, even families that were above the income threshold found the cost burdensome.
"Some students do seem to have trouble buying their lunches," says Dylan Perkins, a senior at the high school. He says he has been aware of incidents where students chose not to eat because their parents didn't have the money, and they didn't want to risk the embarrassment and stigma of going through the lunch line empty handed. But he says he hopes the new program, where everyone can eat — no questions asked — will fix that problem.
"Everybody is equal right now and I hope that the program can continue," Perkins says. "It would help a lot."
Other schools and districts participating are located in Auburn, Howland, Rockland and Aroostook County. How well the program will work remains to be seen, says SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry, but on the very first day of the program, he says the number of students eating jumped by 20 percent.
"We fed about 2,100 kids out of our 2,600 or 2,700 kids," Colbry says. "It was over 80 percent. We've not done that before."
But Colbry says there are new requirements as well. All parents — not just those with economic hardship — are now being asked to submit income data forms to the school. That's because eligibility for a number of federal programs — including $1 million in Title One reading funds, can no longer be assessed using the school's assisted lunch forms.
Colbry says all the districts in the pilot program have opted to continue. And he expects that Skowhegan will also keep providing the free food as long as the USDA keeps up the reimbursements and costs aren't passed along to the local taxpayers.
"The [school] board is very supportive of this," Colbry says. "And so I think it's going to be excellent and it's great for kids. It's the right thing to do."