What people are doing to combat child hunger in Maine

It’s Thanksgiving week, and Thanksgiving conjures thoughts of food. Preparing food, enjoying food, sharing food.

Making sure people have food.

So I thought it would be a good week to follow-up on a food-related post I did about a school nutrition program in Skowhegan-based RSU 54 where all students can eat breakfast and lunch for free. The Community Eligibility Provision, made available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is designed to combat student hunger.

(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

Of course the issue of childhood hunger and food insecurity in Maine isn’t something to be thankful for. However, since doing that post I’ve learned a great deal about the efforts going on to combat hunger in Maine, and I am thankful to live in a state with so many people working collaboratively to solve this problem.

This network of people is vast, far too vast to acknowledge each component in this one post, but I hope to continue highlighting them in the future. There are volunteers from across the socioeconomic spectrum all over the state, stuffing backpacks and staffing food banks and soup kitchens. There are kids who buy an extra item or two at lunch to share with a friend they know is too embarrassed to go through the free lunch line.

There are so many organizations including the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which has grown from a single site operation (in its founders’ home) in 1981 to a statewide backbone in the framework to fight hunger today. This framework not only sources and distributes food but also offers a variety of programs, including teaching food preparation. It feeds people, develops and strengthens networks that grow and supply food for the food insecure, and helps people build skills around food and nutrition.

As for individuals actively engaged in the campaign, I hope to write about many, including political leaders, but today I am going back to Laura Pineo, director of nutrition at RSU 54.

Our state can be thankful for Pineo and all the fine people working in school nutrition programs all over our state, too. They are on the front lines; they see the disparity and the need on a daily basis, which must be emotionally draining. And they are ready, have been ready to find solutions.

The post I mentioned at the beginning featured Pineo and the nutrition program at RSU 54 that allows all students in the district to eat for free. I wanted to add that there are many other schools and districts already participating along with RSU 54.  Click here to see a list of other participants. The link was provided by Walter Beesley, director of school nutrition at the Department of Education.

The response to my post was tremendous, and several readers were interested in more details regarding the program, the administrative side, and what support might be available. Fortunately, one of the bills introduced by Alfond addresses supporting schools and students accessing programs like Community Eligibility to maximize our state’s use of available resources. In the interim, Pineo was kind enough to compile some helpful information, and where she found the time is anybody’s guess.

The new training requirements for being a school nutrition director, alone, are demanding, let alone the numerous day-to-day aspects of the job itself. Directors need to be trained on a variety of topics in the categories of nutrition, operations and administration. In an email, Pineo noted that “school nutrition is changing nationwide, and I am thankful and honored to be a part of that change.”

And I’m honored to have learned from Pineo and to share the thoughts and information she compiled for interested readers:

Q: What are the benefits of the program (besides reducing stigma, which was addressed in the previous post)?


  • All students receive meals at no charge, so no uncollected bills
  • All students receive the benefits of nutritious school meals
  • Academic success and attendance improve
  • Hunger-related illnesses and behaviors decrease (less trips to the office and the nurse)
  • Food budget is offset by increased USDA food
  • Offset can be used to increase local purchases
  • Administrative costs are decreased in the absence of individual applications for tradition free and reduced meal programs
  • Economies of scale are improve, and labor costs per meal decrease
  • Breakfast and lunch participation improve — national studies project a 25 percent increase in breakfast participation and a 13 percent increase in lunch
  • Students spend less time in line and have more time to eat

What’s the threshold for the program?

Public, private or tribal schools can meet the minimum threshold if 40 percent of students are “identified students.” Identified students are children who either qualify for some sort of benefit like SNAP or TANF or are children in one of the following categories: foster, homeless, runaway or migrant workers. Once the initial determination of eligibility is done, administrators can look at possible ways to increase participation in the program. Individual schools, groups of schools or entire districts can enroll.

In MSAD 54 we (the superintendent, school board, support services manager and Pineo) realized that if we had faith and information to support an increase in participation, we could take the leap and include all our schools. The program was initially piloted in the high school for breakfast. By eliminating the cost of breakfast and with minimal advertising, participation increased by 50 percent overnight. This information helped us feel confident that the increase in lunch participation would follow.

Other ways to achieve this goal?

There are several other options available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the Community Eligibility Provision (part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010) is certainly the most comprehensive for our (RSU 54 ) students. It eliminates the burden of collecting household applications to determine eligibility for meals, relying instead on other means-tested programs.

What about smaller districts?

Smaller districts have to approach this in small bites, nibbles really. It did not happen in RSU 54 overnight. I talked about this idea for two years before we made the leap. There is more research and help out there now than even just two years ago. People can call or email me, and I will help in any way I can.

How did the idea come to you?

The upfront research was work. I actually learned about Community Eligibility when it was being piloted by reading updates from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and from information from USDA Child Nutrition Services. FRAC is the premiere nonprofit organization focusing on anti-hunger in our country.

I made many calls to school nutrition directors that were piloting the program and looked at their information about their poverty levels. I have this simple belief that if it helps kids, we must find a way. I had to learn about the “other” side of education — what does it take to run a school district? How do we do what is right without losing the funds for other programs like Title 1 (a reading program), E-Rate (technology in our schools), and EPS (Essential Programming and Services)?

Networking and sharing ideas with other professionals is critical to success.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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