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Twelve rural Maine school districts receive funding to make school meals healthier

The United States Department of Agriculture is awarding $30 million to 264 school districts nationwide as part of the Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative.

RUMFORD, Maine — In RSU 10, the western foothills region, childhood hunger has been an ongoing problem for years. It's why some staff members don't get much of a summer break these days. They spend Monday through Thursday mornings from the end of June through mid-August packing up meals to be delivered to local children.

"We do about 80 bags per day," Toni Reed, the production manager at Mountain Valley High School, said, noting in each bag there's a breakfast and a lunch. Reed said she and her team typically stop at three different sites, where students can come collect their bags.

"I think the need is quite great. I think the numbers kind of speak for that," Reed said.

The importance of quality school nutrition is gaining some new attention, though. Earlier this week, the United States Department of Agriculture announced $30 million in grants going to 264 school districts nationwide through the Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative. That includes 12 rural school districts in Maine, like RSU 10, which is getting $133,700 over two years. 

"It's very exciting. I really had no idea that we would receive this grant," Jeanne LaPointe, the food services director for RSU 10, said.

LaPointe said some of the district's goals with this money include improving kitchen equipment, hiring another staff member to help with cooking, and moving from pre-packaged meals to more from-scratch cooking.

"It's definitely a process, and it's definitely baby steps, but this grant will help us move our menus in that direction," LaPointe said, later adding, "We can't make enough progress when it comes to feeding kids."

Justin Strasburger, the executive director of Full Plates Full Potential, said this financial support comes at a fitting time.

"Inflation is still high. Costs are high for families," Strasburger said. "A lot of the pandemic-era support programs have gone away."

Strasburger said hunger is often a hidden issue, but it has big consequences.

"Hungry kids just can't learn. It's a biological thing. If you're hungry, your brain isn't firing on all cylinders. You're just wasting your school day if you're hungry," Strasburger said.

Strasburger said this fall, Full Plates Full Potential is launching its own effort to get more local ingredients from area farms into school meals. You can see more about the school districts selected for the USDA's Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative grants here

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