Today, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack joined Governor Mills at Gorham Middle School to highlight a program signed into law by Governor Mills that provides free school meals to all students. Maine is one of the first states in the country to provide all its students with free meals at school as a result of the program, which was funded through the bipartisan 2022 supplemental budget after being spearheaded by Governor Mills and Senate President Troy Jackson.
The program has received widespread praise—including from none other than Mills’ predecessor, Paul LePage. At last Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate, LePage endorsed the program, saying in response to a question about whether he supported the program, “I absolutely agree with that…I’m all in for feeding our children.”
During LePage’s eight years in office, however, he took a different approach. LePage tried repeatedly to cut benefits for poor and food insecure children, vetoing or refusing to sign multiple bills to expand access to free or reduced price meals at schools, and targeting Head Start and child care assistance programs. In fact, the Maine Center for Economic Policy reported during the LePage era that “due to state policy decisions, 42,600 children have lost food assistance” via a mix of tightening eligibility requirements and turning back federal funds. Under LePage, child poverty in Maine increased by 13.6 percent--even as it decreased nationwide–and the state was ranked as the most food insecure state in New England, with one in every five Maine kids facing food insecurity.
“I’m not sure which is a more remarkable achievement by Governor Mills—passing bipartisan legislation to provide every Maine public school student with free meals, or getting Paul LePage to admit she did something right,” said Drew Gattine, Chair of the Maine Democratic Party. “While LePage is right to agree with Governor Mills’ initiative, his approach to this issue when he was in office was dead wrong. Now that we’ve made so much progress, we can’t put our kids back in the hands of a governor who failed them so badly.”
The free school lunch initiative is just one of many ways in which Governor Mills and Democrats in the legislature have fought child hunger and poverty since taking over in 2019. From bills to expand access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to major investments in education and the child welfare system, the current administration has made helping Maine’s most vulnerable children a top priority. While there is still much work to be done, the most recently available data from 2020 show the fewest Maine children in poverty since 2005.