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Maine continues free school meals even though federal program is ending

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the pandemic upended schools in 2020, the federal government made school meals free for every child. That policy is ending this fall. But in a few states, including Maine, lawmakers have decided to make free meals permanent moving forward. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg visited one lunch room to see the impact of the change.

JEANNE REILLY: Let's try this, see what happens.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Inside the cafeteria at Windham High School in southern Maine, workers slice green onions and whisk together sauces as part of a training to get ready for the upcoming school year. The district prides itself on its deviations from traditional school lunch fare. Today, they're making poke bowls using fresh fish.

REILLY: Ooh, that's good with the lime. Yeah.

FEINBERG: Director Jeanne Reilly says it's always been a busy operation here, getting food to a district with more than 3,000 kids. But she says that operation went into overdrive when the pandemic hit and they started delivering meals to families across the district. Even as kids have returned to their classrooms, the work hasn't stopped.

REILLY: We are so busy, and the volume of food that we're going through is just unbelievable. You know, just we're always, you know, running out, not being able to fully anticipate how many meals we're going to serve because we've never been able to offer meals for free.

FEINBERG: Despite the extra work, Reilly says she's thrilled with the results so far. During the last school year, the district served around 45% more meals than it did before the pandemic. Schools across the state say they've also seen a lot more kids getting school meals, helping to erode the perception that the meals are only for low-income students. And Windham High School teacher Elizabeth Moran says if a kid is irritable or acting up in class, she'll often tell them to go get a free breakfast. When they come back, she says, they're calmer and more focused.

ELIZABETH MORAN: It lets them take a walk. They get to clear their head. They get something in their bellies. It's all good.

JUSTIN STRASBURGER: Once the pandemic hit and these waivers came out, I think it just thrust to the forefront just how important these meals are, how many kids and families rely on these meals.

FEINBERG: Justin Strasburger, with the nonprofit Full Plates Full Potential, says the last few years have made it clear that meals are as essential as buses or books in a state where 1 in 5 children is food insecure. That experience, he says, was a big reason that Maine lawmakers ultimately voted to make free school meals permanent for every public school student at an estimated cost of around $34 million per year.

STRASBURGER: I think the political will was there in part because we were able to make the argument of, listen, we've been doing this for, you know, a year and a half, two years at this point. Why would we go back? It makes no sense to go back.

FEINBERG: And local officials say the law comes at a crucial time, with inflation pushing up food prices for many families. But schools are also still contending with bureaucratic hurdles. That's because the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch is still a go-to measure used to determine everything from whether a school is eligible for certain grants to federal funding for extra programs and teachers in relatively low-income areas.

JANE MCLUCAS: So it could mean a teacher in a school, if you really want to put it that way.

FEINBERG: Jane McLucas, with the Maine Department of Education, says schools are working hard to ensure that all families still fill out the forms. Despite those hurdles, teachers and school officials say they're glad that school meals will still be free come fall. After seeing just how big of a difference this food can make, many can't imagine going back.

For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Windham, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robbie grew up in New Hampshire, but has since written stories for radio stations from Washington, D.C., to a fishing village in Alaska. Robbie graduated from the University of Maryland and got his start in public radio at the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Before arriving at Maine Public Radio, he worked in the Midwest, where he covered everything from beer to migrant labor for public radio station WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan.