Will Congress leave poor Maine kids hungrier and less ready to learn?

Just when you thought Congress has finally gotten something right, they disappoint once again.

I am talking about the national school meal programs. Congress assumed correctly that if more than 40% of students in a school automatically qualified for free or reduced lunch, there were likely a lot more hungry kids besides those enrolled in the program. And in 2014, under the community eligibility provision of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, nutritious meals became available to all children in those high-poverty schools. This not only fed more hungry children, it eliminated the stigma that only poor kids get free meals.

Nearly one in four Maine kids is food insecure.source: US Department of Agriculture
Nearly one in four Maine kids is food insecure.  source: US Department of Agriculture

But now Congress is considering a bill that would severely restrict schools’ participation in community eligibility and eliminate free meals for as many as 10,000 Maine kids.

U.S. Representative Todd Rokita, chair of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education introduced HR 5003 last week. It increases from 40% to 60% the percentage of vulnerable students needed for a school or school district to qualify for community eligibility.

In Maine, 155 schools exceed the 40% test. Only 13 meet the 60% threshold.[1]

We all know that hungry children do not perform well in school. They are more likely to misbehave, miss more school, and do poorly on tests. Community eligibility increases the number of low-income students participating in meal programs and improves student achievement, diets, and behavior.

The community eligibility option is smart policy. This bill is irresponsible and cruel, punishing not just children, but Maine’s most vulnerable kids: those who don’t have enough to eat.

[1] See List of schools and eligibility on the Maine Department of Education web site.