RICHMOND — A photo posted recently on Facebook of a Regional School District 2 lunch sparked controversy among parents who struggled to understand how the meal was considered sufficient. Officials say providing nutritious food that kids want to eat is more challenging than it appears, especially now that meals are free for all public school students in the state.

This photo of a free school lunch served at Marcia Buker Elementary School sparked conversation among parents over the quality of meals the district is able to provide. Melissa Hackett via Facebook

The controversial meal at Marcia Buker Elementary School in Richmond — which consisted of peas, cheesy bread with a side of marinara sauce and a box of apple juice — did meet nutritional guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture.

But those standards don’t necessarily align with what a dietitian may recommend. The USDA considers cheese as a meat substitute, for instance. 

Programs designed to incentivize the use of fresh, local ingredients take time and resources to seek out, something not all districts have the ability to do. With schools now having to provide more meals with the same number of cafeteria employees — or sometimes fewer — districts like RSU 2 are under considerable stress.

“As we think about the barriers preventing kids from eating at school, doing away with needing to pay with the free meals for everyone, that was a big one,” said Anna Korsen, program director of Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit that helps schools combat food insecurity. “As far as the food being served on the tray, it’s a very complicated issue.”  

Korsen and other experts on school nutrition point out that though the meals are free for all students, nutritional directors still have to provide meals for, in some cases, thousands of students. And they have to do that with small budgets, short staff and limited kitchen resources all while meeting federal guidelines.


“There’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that parents might not know about,” said Korsen. “There are a lot of schools in Maine without fully prepared kitchens and need for funding to support the ovens, dishwashers and fridges needed to provide a high-quality meal for kids. Also, (there are) staffing capacity issues where a lot of schools are running with one person trying to prepare 1,000 meals for students.”  


Chrissy Michaud, the school nutrition director for RSU 2, said there has not been a week since before the pandemic where she has had a full staff, yet the number of students who take a meal has increased. 

Previously, parents were tasked with filling out forms to see whether their children were eligible for either a free or reduced-price meal, which cost around $4.35. If their household income met federal poverty guidelines, the kids were eligible. Otherwise, students would pay in full for the meals, or bring in their own.

The recent law, which the state started implementing in the 2019-20 school year, made Maine one of only two states, next to California, to provide free meals for all students. Using its Meals for Students fund, the state pays the difference between the cost of each lunch or breakfast and the federal reimbursement rate of $0.68 per meal.

“The amount of students we are feeding has doubled and in some schools, almost tripled with the same amount of staff with the same amount of hours,” Michaud said. “Don’t get me wrong, feeding all of those students is wonderful! This is what we hoped for years ago! We are here for all students; they are our No. 1 priority.” 


Now that breakfast and lunch are free for all students in Maine, fewer families have felt compelled to return eligibility forms, though, according to school officials. Even with the state law in place, underreported need can in turn affect how much funding a district receives — not just for food but for other income-based programs such as Head Start or Title I, which supports the academic achievement of disadvantaged youth.

For (school districts) that are operating the traditional National School Lunch Program, Maine is covering the parent portion of the meal cost for those students who are receiving meals at the reduced rate or the paid rate. (Districts) also receive the federal reimbursement portion for those benefit levels,” said Jane McLucas, director of child nutrition at the Maine Department of Education.

Michaud has 20 staff members across seven schools in RSU 2 and must feed at least 600 students two meals every day.

The recent Facebook post about the breadsticks meal suggested the food was better suited as a snack than a lunch. By Friday, the post had more than 150 comments, many from angry parents.


Ryan Parker, impact and partnership lead for the nonprofit FoodCorps, compared the number of meals a school district has to make on a daily basis to the output of the “largest restaurant in town,” but with certain guidelines and regulations that determine what meals can be served and what ingredients to use.  


“It’s important to keep in mind (the nutritional staff is) working really hard to do as much as they can,” Parker said. “I haven’t met a service director who doesn’t care about feeding kids and making sure they have enough nutrition to allow them to learn and develop.” 

Though the school districts have to follow strict guidelines from the USDA, some parents have voiced that the meals are still not substantial enough for children.  

Michaud, of RSU 2, said planning a menu that meets federal standards can be difficult, as the USDA guidelines are not necessarily similar to those of a dietitian or nutritionist and can be very specific.  

For lunch, students must be offered two meats, or meat alternatives, 2 ounces of grains with every meal, 3/4 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of fruit, and eight ounces of milk. On a weekly basis, there has to be a variety of greens such as kale, romaine or spinach and a variety of vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes. 

Michaud explained that students can refuse parts of the meal if they want, but they have to take a fruit or vegetable and two other components of the meal.  

Karry Theberge, a parent with children in RSU 2, said “although the meal is free, it’s not what I consider substantial.”  


“We are fortunate we can subsidize his availability to get more food, but I know there are families in the district who can’t,” she said. 

Korsen and Parker said they urge parents to speak with their school boards if they have issues with the meals being served and to ask the boards to allocate additional money for programs that could expand the kinds of food a district is able to provide. 

“There’s a lot of great work to make sure school nutrition programs have access to really great food,” Korsen said. “This takes extra capacity — anything new and extra needs a person to do it so if schools have limited staffing, it can be hard to do other things.” 


Mike Flynn, the nutritional director of  Regional School Unit 12, has taken advantage of food incentive programs from state department of education that not only provide and highlight fresh, local ingredients in school meals but also give the district additional funding based on their participation.  

The Somerville-based district receives most of its food from Dennis Paper & Food Service but uses the local ingredients to enhance the nutritional value and taste of the meals. 


For nearly two years, Flynn has made the drive down from the Augusta-area to Portland to pick up fresh fish through the Fishermen Feeding Mainers program. The district does not have to pay for the fish, but it relies on Flynn’s availability to pick up the order, and not all districts have the time and money to take on such an endeavor.

Flynn uses the fish to make fish sticks and fish patties, which have been a hit with students. 

“There is a variable. If we serve tuna, the count will go down, but if we serve fresh fish, it will go up,” Flynn said, adding that if the students had their way, chicken patties would be on the menu more. 

He seeks input from the students by sending the menu to their principals for feedback and now that lunches are free for all students, he said he can focus more on the ingredients he uses for the meals and how to make the meals in a creative way that hits all of the nutritional bases. 

Additionally, RSU 12 participates in Farm to Sea to School, whereby the district receives $1 for every $3 spent on produce from local farms and can earn up to an additional $5,000 for its food programs. Flynn coordinates menus with farms in the area based on what is harvested that week. 

He also had his kitchen staff trained by the state education department in scratch cooking and received an additional $500 for the program. 

Flynn said the number of students that receive meals on a daily basis in the district is usually around 600, about two-thirds of the student body.

“We are trying the best we can,” he said. “One day you wake up thinking you hit the mark, but it’s definitely challenging. Yes, the kids are eating for free, but we are under the same model and it’s not like an efficient model where they can do banquets, home delivery and base staff on the volume they are serving. It’s a constant regroup and try again.”

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