Food service assistants Rose Dulac, left, Kathy Laliberte, Diane Pelletier and Terry Carver prepare hot lunches Friday at Lewiston High School. Staff prepares about 700 breakfasts and just under 700 lunches each day at the school. The meals are handed out to students from nine locations in Lewiston. Kitchen manager Rhonda Hart said 1,100 lunches were delivered each day prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Schools are expecting less federal funding for meal programs in the next fiscal year.

Blame the pandemic.

The Lewiston school nutrition program expects to lose tens of thousands of dollars in federal reimbursement because it served fewer meals this year.

“There’s an interesting trend in Maine and across the country,” said Alisa Roman, nutrition program director for Lewiston Public Schools and president of the Maine School Nutrition Association.

“Schools are scrambling, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?’” she said in a recent phone interview. “It will definitely be a challenge for most.”

Other districts — including those based in Poland, Farmington, Rumford and Paris — also expect less money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which fully or partially funds school meals.


Meals equal revenue for these programs.

Schools have seen a decline in meal participation because of remote instruction. Kids are eating at home when they’re not in school, Roman said.

Another factor is that nutrition programs have not cut back on staff during this time, she said.

“We’ve created this formula for potential disaster across the state by paying for labor, trying to hold on and not having the participation come in,” she said.

Programs are staying fully staffed because they will need these people when things return to normal, she said.

She said some school boards have already agreed to put money in their districts’ general funds to replace any loss of federal funding.


That may affect taxpayers, she said.

“My positive spin on this is that some districts have been serving free meals nonstop since last March (when schools were closed to limit the spread of COVID-19),” she said. “I would like to argue that no one wants to hear it will affect taxpayers, but that money is well-spent to take care of the community and those who are most vulnerable.”

Lewiston’s nutrition program, one of the largest in the state, normally runs around $4 million and serves 85% of the 5,000 students in city schools, Roman said. She estimated participation has dropped by about 60% this year.

Statewide, participation is at about 70%, according to Walter Beesley, director of the Maine Department of Education’s nutrition program.

“It appears the hybrid (part in-person and part remote) and fully remote (instruction models) have had an impact on both complimentary breakfast and lunch meals, and less on breakfast,” Beesley said.

Federal waivers have allowed all school districts in Maine to offer free meals to all children 18 or younger throughout the school year. Those waivers recently were extended to be in effect through Sept. 30.


“Schools’ goal is to provide a meal for every child that is safe, nutritious and high-quality,” Beesley said. “This is one stable part of our children’s upside-down life.”

Terri Fortier, left, and Wendy Swab hand lunches to Lewiston Regional Technical Center students Friday at Lewiston High School. Students from each classroom bring a bin to take lunches back to classmates since students cannot gather together in the cafeteria because of COVID-19 restrictions. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Some districts are seeing an increase in meal participation this year while others are seeing a decrease, he said.

“The program is underutilized by children in some districts, and overall in Maine it is very underutilized,” Beesley said. “Maine schools are prepared to offer more meals to our children.”

School nutrition directors met by videoconference this past week with Maine’s congressional delegation to urge them to help, said Ellen Dore, nutrition program director for RSU 16 (Poland, Mechanic Falls, Minot).

“Our big ask was to extend out the waivers (through the 2021-22 school year) so we can continue to feed kids at no charge, to help parents,” Dore said.

Her program runs around $700,000 a year, including labor, insurance and food, she said.


In past years it has run at a deficit of about $1,000 a month. This year, that deficit is almost $10,000 a month, she said Thursday.

She said meals are delivered directly to houses for children receiving remote instruction.

“This district is very rural,” she said. “We tried to do curbside, but a lot of families didn’t have cars. They had no way to get to the food.”

Meals must be packaged in sealed trays for delivery, she said. “Those things aren’t cheap.”

Whether the district gets less money from the USDA next year will depend on whether the funding is based on this year’s numbers, Dore said.

“If I had to guess, I would say less,” she said.


She hopes the extended waivers (running through Sept. 30) will help fill the coffers, she said. Summer meals reach a lot of kids.

If not, she might have to restructure the program, she said.

Whatever happens, her staff will roll with it, Dore said.

“We’ve been doing this for a year, just trying to keep kiddos fed, keep things as normal as possible,” she said. “I have a fantastic crew here. They have rolled with every change I’ve asked for and with no kickback.”

In RSU 10 (Rumford and Buckfield areas), fewer meals have been served in schools, but delivering meals has helped balance the books, Nutrition Program Director Jeanne LaPointe said.

In a normal year, the program runs at a little over $1 million, she said. She said she wouldn’t know for sure until the end of the fiscal year (June 30) how this year will compare.


She does know that the program is not running in the black, she said.

“This whole year was not a year that you could even try to make a plan for — it was just a shift in what we do,” LaPointe said. “Feeding children in cafeterias, delivering to classrooms and drop-offs, especially to families who find themselves quarantined.”

She said she was grateful that the Biden administration had extended the free meal waiver with plenty of notice.

“Waivers were kind of lurching out of Washington under the last administration,” she said. “We found out just a week before (meal delivery) started last year.”

She said the USDA’s memo last week announcing that it was “sweeping waivers forward” will give program directors plenty of time to plan.

If the district does end up with less federal funding, she will look for grants and try to capture more revenue over the summer and into the next school year, LaPointe said.


The Oxford Hills School District (Norway-Paris area) has “definitely” served fewer meals, Nutrition Program Director Jody Truman said.

As of the end of February, about 70,000 fewer meals had been served, she said. That is about 37% less than the normal 193,000 meals served by that time.

The drop has taken place despite an aggressive delivery approach.

Parents or students can pick up seven days’ worth of breakfast and lunch every Monday evening at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris, Truman said.

Meals also are served to those students attending classes in person, and meals can be picked up during the day for kids working remotely, she said.

If schools close because of COVID-19 outbreaks, meals are delivered by bus, she said.


She said the program for the sprawling, eight-town district runs around $2 million a year. She doesn’t expect this year’s lower revenue will have a critical effect.

“As of right now, our district has a self-supporting food service program,” Truman said.

The program has accumulated a checking-account balance over the years through its a la carte menu at the high school, she said.

“Even though we are losing money now, I don’t anticipate we will be in the red,” she said. “Even after this pandemic, we’ll be fine.”

The number of lunches prepared for Lewiston Public School students is down because the COVID-19 pandemic has made getting the meals into the hands of students a challenge. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Farmington-based RSU 9 Food Service Director Andrew Hutchins told the board of directors Feb. 23 that he anticipated a $120,000 loss in federal funding next fiscal year, according to a Franklin Journal report.

“COVID-19 has really been devastating to our financial picture of the school lunch program,” Hutchins told the board, adding that the program receives funding based on the number of meals served.


The food service budget, which consistently breaks even every year, is independent of the district budget.

RSU 9 has launched a number of outreach programs to serve meals during the pandemic, according to the report. The pickup program serves about 50 to 60 meals every day and the recently launched home delivery service serves about 125 students a day, Hutchins reported.

But remote instruction has affected the number of students typically served through the district’s nutrition program.

“It’s simple numbers,” Hutchins said, “just like restaurants need to turn tables to make ends meet, we need to turn trays to make ends meet.”

Hutchins said he believed the district would not have to include money for food service in its general fund.

“Once the school year kicks in, we have money coming in and going out every month and we can easily survive on $150,000 (the current fund balance) for next year,” he said.


Officials in Auburn and Lisbon said they did not expect to lose any federal funding because of fewer meals served.

Lisbon Superintendent Richard Green said the one-town district has served a “similar amount” of meals to last year and did not expect a “significant” drop in funding.

Auburn Nutrition Program Director Chris Piercey said the district was feeding fewer students, but did not expect a shortfall.

Others are not so sure.

But for those facing uncertainty or a certain loss, there is hope, Lewiston’s Roman said.

She said a “slew” of legislation is pending in the Maine Legislature around food insecurity, free meals and farm-to-school programs.

“We are following these bills and we’ll see where we land,” she said.

Franklin Journal staff write Andrea Swiedom contributed to this report.

Terri Fortier brings a cart of hot lunches to Lewiston Regional Technical Center students Friday at Lewiston High School. Meals are brought to the LRTC wing since students cannot gather together in the cafeteria because of COVID-19 restrictions. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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