Every student in Skowhegan’s school district can eat breakfast and lunch for free. Here’s the lady making it happen

When I was reading about the debate over the name of the mascot at Skowhegan Area High School, I couldn’t help but think the district could use a little good press. While there may be division over that debate, the communities, officials and staff that make up the district are united in their desire to combat child hunger.

Laura Pineo, director of school nutrition for the district, was adamant about this point. Pineo has overseen the implementation of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program designed for communities with high rates of students (over 40 percent) who qualify for free meals. Individual schools, groups of schools or entire districts can qualify to provide all meals to all students for free — no cost to any families. School Administrative District  54 accesses the program, called the Community Eligibility Provision district wide.

That means every student in SAD 54 can eat breakfast and lunch for free, not just students who used to qualify for free meals.

There’s no stigma for the kids who brave getting the free lunch. There are no empty bellies for the kids whose families have fallen on hard times but do not quite qualify for assistance. Everyone gets the same healthy food for free — breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks for those involved in after-school programs. A separate program provides a fresh fruit or vegetable snack between breakfast and lunch.

Any kid who is hungry can walk into any school in SAD 54 and get quality meals the same as anyone else, no questions asked, no embarrassment, just nutrition — and for too many kids, relief.

Jean Dickey (left) and Iva Godin serve pizza to students at Skowhegan Area High School, where this year the school is providing all student meals, free of charge, as part of a new USDA program designed to fight childhood hunger in the nation's poorest communities. (Jennifer Mitchell | MPBN)

Jean Dickey (left) and Iva Godin serve pizza to students at Skowhegan Area High School, where this year the school is providing all student meals, free of charge, as part of a new USDA program designed to fight childhood hunger in the nation’s poorest communities. (Jennifer Mitchell | MPBN)

Pineo stressed that there are 80,000 hungry kids in Maine. Her motivation is to reach just one of them. “If I can feed a high schooler so that student doesn’t have to worry about where the food is going to come from, then that student is free to think about where to go to college or what to do after graduation.” OK, Pineo had me in tears on that one.

In its second year, the program is district-wide for SAD 54 as all schools except the high school meet the minimum threshold. Pineo said bringing a program of this fashion to her district has been a passion of hers for 10 years, and she was busy laying the groundwork even before the program became available. Determined to make it happen, she made sure the financial side worked for the district and didn’t affect funding for other critical programs.

She talked to her nutrition staff, teachers, administrators and board members and found overwhelming support. “I can’t say enough good about my staff, the teachers, administrators” who share Pineo’s passion for feeding their students. Not only do they support the free meals program, but they also work with her to identify students who may have extra nutritional needs outside of school and find ways to meet them.

Pineo emphasized that there are students in Maine who go home on a Friday and may not eat a meal again until they come back to school on Monday.

Like many districts, SAD 54 has a Healthy Kids Pack program that sends additional food home on weekends and vacations. The stigma of participating can make students hesitant to participate, though. Some schools have a “share table” that allows students to share unopened non-perishable snacks that are later gathered by teachers and discreetly “tucked into the backpacks” of kids that teachers know struggle nutritionally.

Again with the tears.

SAD 54 nutrition director Laura Pineo checks the salad bar. (Jennifer Mitchell | MPBN)

SAD 54 nutrition director Laura Pineo checks the salad bar. (Jennifer Mitchell | MPBN)

The program is administered by the USDA and involves a shift administratively. Rather than having individual students apply for free and reduced lunch and being reimbursed per meal accordingly, Pineo had to show overall “community eligibility.” The nutrition program is reimbursed based on the student population.  The federal funds cover the costs of kitchen staff as well as food.

To implement the program and to make its dollars stretch, Pineo developed a broad network including the Kennebec’s Restorative Community Harvest run by staff and inmates of the Kennebec County Jail. Pineo said that as we were talking 600 pounds of potatoes were being delivered. This donation freed up monies to be spent on other fresh ingredients; Pineo mentioned she prefers to buy locally when she can.

She credited the kitchen staff with creating the healthy meals that have an average of 82 percent of students participating. Notes from a 2014 meeting of the Task Force to End Student Hunger in Maine state that Maine fed 46.7 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, and “the Maine Hunger Initiative figures school lunch participation at 67%,” which refers to overall participation in lunch programs.

No wonder Pineo is proud of the 82 percent. Since implementing the program last year, breakfast participation in her district is up about 15 percent, and lunch participation is up 18-20 percent. The biggest increases are being seen at the high school. She credited her staff and quipped that all she had to do was find the 600 pounds of potatoes; they were the ones who had to figure out what to do with them.

During the first year, Pineo kept in contact with teachers and administrators for feedback on its impact. She said they reported a decrease in students being sent to the principal’s office and fewer visits to the nurse. Pineo and I commiserated about how much hunger impacts a student’s ability to learn and behave.

Feeding them doesn’t solve all the challenges they face, but it’s a start, and it makes dealing with the other challenges easier. Pineo so believes in her calling, she’s created networks to support more schools and districts accessing the program, as interest is growing. She offers support to other districts looking to implement the program and rattled off a list of groups and initiatives in which she participates including the aforementioned legislative task force. She’s also quick to acknowledge how receptive legislators have been.

In every possible way, she’s gathering resources and ideas like seeds, planting them wherever and whenever she can, and helping to tend to them as they grow into networks and programs that feed Maine kids. News just doesn’t come much better than that.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.