The school closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic sent districts scrambling to do more than keep education up to date under challenging circumstances — they also had to figure out how to get food regularly to the more than 30 million students who depend on school meals for nutrition and sustenance.

Thankfully, there are a lot of reasons to believe Maine has met this challenge. The Bangor Daily News, citing statistics from the Maine Department of Education, reported this week that schools served only 3% fewer meals this April than last. In total, more than 1 million bagged lunches have been handed out during the shutdown, along with more than a million breakfasts.

Districts across the state are putting out thousands of much-needed meals a day. Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54, for example, is providing meals through the weekend for thousands of area children using school buses and the help of volunteers. Westbrook schools are giving out nearly 700 free meals a day, plus nearly 1,800 on Fridays. SAD 27 in Fort Kent and Madawaska Public Schools make breakfast and lunch for 1,375 students six days a week.

These meals, mostly cold, such as sandwiches, have been delivered to homes on bus routes and handed out at designated pickup spots. Since schools closed in mid-March, these much-appreciated in-person interactions have become some of the few between schools, students and parents. In this time of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders, they are welcome.

While the numbers statewide look good, they vary across districts. And because meals in most cases during the outbreak are offered to anyone under the age of 18, and breakfast and lunch are usually handed out at once, it’s likely that some districts are handing out far more meals than before, while others are handing out fewer. That means some students who normally rely on school meals are almost certainly missing them. Districts should look for these holes in order to fill them.

However, that school programs have adapted this quickly shows the value of removing barriers. Schools don’t have to check whether someone is eligible for the meals, and they don’t have to collect money or chase down students with overdue bills. They just give a meal to everyone 18 or under who wants one.

Some Maine schools already offer free meals to every student, no questions asked, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision. Every school that already qualifies should take advantage of the program, which requires a school has a certain percentage of students from low-income families.

And moving forward, those income requirements should be eliminated, so that every school has the opportunity to provide meals to students without barriers and costly red tape.

 


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