Governor Mills Welcomes U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to Maine

October 11, 2022

During Tour of Gorham Middle School, Sec. Vilsack Applauds Free School Meal Program

Gorham, MAINE — Governor Janet Mills welcomed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to Maine Tuesday, showcasing the state’s new universal free school lunch program at Gorham Middle School.

In her 2022 supplemental budget, Governor Mills proposed, and the Legislature approved, $27 million to cover the cost of school meals not reimbursed by the federal government after Congress did not extend USDA’s authority to allow all students to eat school meals free of charge in school year 2022-2023. As a result of this investment, every child in Maine public schools can access school meals free of charge, making Maine the second state in the nation to make all meals free at public schools.

“We all know that children can’t learn on an empty stomach,” said Governor Mills. “I’m proud to say that here in Maine, we took nation-leading action to make sure all children can continue to eat for free during the school day. This investment in our children prepares them for future success and gives parents peace of mind. I hope that other states will follow our lead.”

The Secretary’s visit to Maine to highlight the state’s free school meal program comes during National School Lunch Week and on the heels of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health and the release of the National Strategy, which supports creating a pathway to free school meals for all to improve children’s health. During the visit, Secretary Vilsack also announced $50 million in grants for schools to invest in new food service equipment that will allow them to continue serving nutritious meals.

“I’m glad to join Governor Mills and Representative Pingree this morning to underscore the importance of ensuring each student in Maine and across the country has access to healthy, nutritious meals,” said Secretary Vilsack. “As demonstrated by the release of the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, USDA under the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to advancing a pathway to free healthy school meals for all. Providing all school children access to healthy, nutritious meals will drive better health and give them the tools to reach their full potential, which means a better and fuller future for our nation.”

Governor Mills and Secretary Vilsack were joined on their tour of Gorham Middle School by Congresswoman Pingree and Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal.

“In Maine, we know nutritious school meals are as essential to success in the classroom as pencils and notebooks. Maine’s landmark free school meals program has given all kids in our state a fair shot to excel academically without the burden of hunger or financial stress distracting from their education,” said Congresswoman Pingree. “I am grateful Secretary Vilsack came to Gorham Middle School today to see up-close how Maine’s free school meals program can be a model for the country. The Secretary's announcement of $50 million in American Rescue Plan funding will directly help schools expand cooking from scratch, store locally-grown produce, and provide the tools they need to serve healthy school meals. This funding, which supplements funding I fought for on the Appropriations Committee, exemplifies the USDA and the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to fostering healthy and equitable school meals. I'm proud to have Secretary Vilsack, Governor Mills, her administration, and countless farmers and teachers as partners in creating greater access to healthy school food for every single child in America.”

"I am grateful to USDA Secretary Vilsack for making a visit to Gorham Middle School to meet with school leaders and local farmers and to tour the school garden which is maintained by students," said DACF Commissioner Amanda Beal. "We all should take great pride in the Secretary calling Maine a leader for its support of farmers and locally grown food and for its commitment to young children and their nutrition. These thoughtful words truly captured what makes our state so special.”

During their tour, Governor Mills, Secretary Vilsack and Congresswoman Pingree met 2020 Maine Teacher of the Year Heather Whitaker, who runs Gorham Middle School’s community garden. The garden, established in 2003, teaches students to care for vegetables, herbs, flowers and berries that are donated to the Gorham Food Pantry.

"We are extremely honored and proud to host Secretary Vilsack, Governor Mills, Congresswoman Pingree and Commissioner Beal at the Gorham Middle School garden today, where for the past 19 years our community has worked together to grow and donate an average of 1,000 pounds of produce each growing season to the Gorham Food Pantry,” said Heather Whitaker. “I am proud to live, raise children, and teach in a state that recognizes all students should have equitable access to fresh, locally sourced food in our school nutrition programs. School Meals for All and Farm and Sea to School has a direct, positive impact on the health and well-being of our students. Today's announcement of additional funding for school nutrition programs will expand these opportunities and provide much needed equipment for schools across Maine and the country."

Making school meals free is part of the Mills’ administration’s actions to reduce childhood hunger in the State of Maine.

On May 20, 2019, Governor Mills signed into law L.D. 1159, "Resolve, To End Hunger in Maine by 2030", bipartisan legislation which directed the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to create a comprehensive, strategic plan to end hunger in Maine by 2030.