January 9, 2023

In 2021, Maine passed landmark legislation guaranteeing healthy school meals for all students, but the groundwork leading up to this began years before.

Full Plates Full Potential was founded in 2014 out of what originally began as a legislative task force to address Maine’s high rate of student food insecurity.

The task force quickly recognized the need for a nonprofit and non-governmental organization dedicated solely to addressing childhood food insecurity and to leading the work, assembling coalition partners, and investigating best practices and sensible solutions related to the existing, yet underutilized, federal Child Nutrition Programs.

Between 2014 and 2021, Full Plates Full Potential worked on child nutrition policy changes, while laying the groundwork with key partners such as the Maine Department of Education (DOE), Maine School Nutrition Association, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Maine Farm to School Network, and many others. Conversations with early partners led to collaborative policy changes that expanded access to the Summer Food Service Program, Breakfast After the Bell, and afterschool meals in high-need schools and communities, as well as eliminating the reduced-price copay category for both school breakfast and lunch.

With steady support from key stakeholders, Full Plates Full Potential began working on School Meals for All. Prior to drafting legislation, we recruited even more partners to the table, including the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association, and disseminated a living document of talking points and data links. This enabled our coalition partners to begin their own conversations about School Meals for All among their networks of partners and supporters.

As the lead statewide organization working on this issue, we drafted the language of the bill, while working closely with two key legislative champions, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson and Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau. Both offices assisted throughout the campaign on strategy and earned media. Additionally, we worked closely with Senator Cathy Breen and Representative Teresa Pierce, the chairs of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, and received advice on possible concerns, potential challenges, and other key legislators that needed to be engaged.

The School Meals for All legislation was modeled after a previous bill that eliminated the reduced-price copay for school meals, and included a section instructing Maine DOE and Maine schools to maximize federal funding available through special provisions such as community eligibility.

Although Maine had a Democratic majority in both chambers of the legislature as well as a Democratic governor, the state historically has been a purple state. In our early meetings, Gov. Janet Mills stressed the importance of strong bipartisan support to securing the funding necessary for the successful implementation of School Meals for All. Before the legislative session began, we briefed legislative leadership from both parties on the merit of School Meals for All, emphasizing that feeding kids is not a partisan issue. School nutrition directors in key legislative districts were provided with the resources to share stories of childhood hunger in their communities with the representatives. The general public was able to access talking points and links to their state representatives via an engagement page on our website. Additionally, we created a guide for people interested in testifying either virtually or via written testimony.

These extensive outreach efforts paid off when we connected with Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot who had personal experience with food insecurity as a child. He was able to garner support amongst fellow Republicans through his own testimony, and an op-ed he had written. As a fiscal conservative, this Republican senator was able to communicate to his caucus that childhood food insecurity comes at a great cost to society, and that investment in School Meals for All was a prudent financial decision especially within the context of broader spending on education.

Ultimately, School Meals for All passed with overwhelming bipartisan support with a unanimous vote in the state Senate and a 151 to 26 vote in the state House. This included unanimous support from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which would ultimately be tasked with funding the bill as the governor had not included funding for School Meals for All in the budget. The committee was able to secure $10 million to start a seed fund, and we then successfully worked to secure the rest of the funding in the governor’s supplemental budget package the following year.

The 2022–2023 school year is the first year in which school meals are free for all Maine students via the School Meals for All legislation. We are hearing anecdotal evidence that it is having an enormous impact in schools, and we look forward to sharing more substantial data as the school year progresses.

We continue to leverage bipartisan support in our conversations with Maine’s federal delegation, which spans the full range of progressive to conservative. We’re hopeful that Maine’s success with School Meals for All will eventually inspire the federal government to enact Healthy School Meals for All across the nation.