With the leaves changing, it’s clear that fall is in full swing – even if some days it still feels like summer. I hope you and your family are enjoying one of Maine’s most beautiful seasons and that the kids in your family have settled into the school year.
As the pandemic made very clear, we rely on our schools for a lot. For 80,000 Maine kids, schools are a place where they can count on getting free or reduced-price meals, meals they may otherwise go without. In Maine, one in six kids is food insecure, meaning they don’t know when or where their next meal will be. Food insecurity has measurable and lasting impacts on a child’s ability to learn, play, grow and thrive.
To help make sure that Maine children have the chance to succeed, this year the Legislature took the historic step of making school meals free for all K-12 Maine students. While free and reduced-price meals were already available, the fact is kids were falling through the cracks. To qualify for these meals, families had to submit documentation about their income. This creates a barrier for families who may be embarrassed to ask for help or who struggle to get paperwork back to the school. Some kids who do qualify fear judgment from their peers for getting free meals and opt not to take advantage of the meals they’re entitled to. Then there are families whose income is slightly above the cut-off but who may still struggle to get their kids all the nutrition they need when times are tight. Making school meals free for all kids better ensures that hunger and malnutrition aren’t setting the kids in our communities back.
But just as important is the quality of the food we’re serving to kids in school. Luckily, Maine’s rich agricultural and fishing culture means we have plenty of quality food being raised, grown, cultivated and caught right in our backyards. To help get more of this local food on our kids’ lunch trays, and to help support the hardworking farmers, fishers and food producers who provide such great products, the Legislature also created the Local Foods Fund this year.
The Local Foods Fund is a program that encourages schools to purchase locally produced foods by reimbursing them one dollar for every three dollars spent on these products. Schools can buy directly from farmers, fishers and producers in their community or through local food distributors they may already have relationships with. Qualifying foods can be cut, washed, sliced, peeled, dried, refrigerated or frozen, as long as they are minimally processed to ensure that our kids get only the healthiest and freshest food.
When this program was first created, it was called the Local Produce Fund, and qualifying products were limited to fruits and vegetables. But kids need more than that to be healthy, and our farmers, fishers and food producers offer a slate of products that can help fill this nutritional need. Expanding the Local Produce Fund into the Local Foods Fund means that locally sourced proteins sources like meat and fish and value-added dairy like yogurt are now eligible for reimbursement, too. The result is a win-win: Students get to enjoy more delicious, nutritious food grown close to home, and Maine’s farmers, fishers and food producers are introduced to a wider market for their products.
Several local schools and farms are already taking advantage of this program, and hopefully more will join in as word gets out. Both Great Salt Bay Community School students and RSU 12 students are enjoying apples grown at Bailey’s Orchard in Whitefield. RSU 12 students also have beets, cucumbers, kale, peppers and more from the Bumbleroot Farm in Windham on their lunch trays. Spear’s Vegetable Farm, which operates farm stands in Waldoboro and Nobleboro, sends carrots, corn, squash and other vegetables to the Jefferson Village School, and to the Brunswick school system just down the coast. Across our state, more students now have the opportunity to enjoy the food our neighbors work so hard to grow, catch and create.
If you have any questions, if I can be of assistance to you or if you just want to connect, please reach out any time. My email is Chloe.Maxmin@legislature.maine.gov, my cell phone is (207) 200-6224, and you can find me on Facebook at facebook.com/ChloeForSenate. You can also sign up to receive my regular e-newsletter at mainesenate.org.