February 6

MAINE COMPASS: Maine’s hungry children need their lawmakers

Mark Swann

Every summer in towns all over Maine, the families of more than 83,000 children who receive free and reduced meals during the school year must find ways to provide those extra meals for their children. Maine’s Summer Food Service Program reaches only 17.5 percent of eligible children, meaning that more than 70,000 qualifying children do not have access to summer meals.

Parents who already struggle to make ends meet have to find ways to provide those additional meals. For a family with two children who normally eat a school breakfast and lunch, this is an extra 200 meals throughout the summer that their family needs to find.

In a survey of 700 food pantry recipients with households totaling more than 1,700 people, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative learned 63 percent of adults reduce the size of or skip a meal because there isn’t enough food for them and their children.

In another survey of 80 food pantries, pantry coordinators reported an increase in families with school children during the summer months. Seventy-nine percent of those coordinators did not know about any summer meals available to hungry children in their community, and all of them admitted that their pantry resources cannot meet the seasonal spike in need.

In a state that has the third-highest rate of hunger in the nation, one in four Maine children experience food insecurity. We must not let children go hungry when summer meals programs are available.

Over the past three years, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative has developed summer food service meal sites throughout Maine. Collaborating with the Department of Education, schools, churches, nonprofits, neighborhood associations and countless community partners, we have provided technical assistance and facilitated the opening of 49 new summer meal sites for children in more than half of Maine’s counties.

Our National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity AmeriCorps VISTAs have worked with communities in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Hancock, Kennebec, Lincoln, Oxford, Penobscot, Sagadahoc and Washington counties, strengthening summer meal programs for hungry children.

Preble Street has been fighting hunger and advocating for solutions to end it for 35 years.

Volunteers throughout Maine have been doing their part. Now Maine’s hungry kids need their lawmakers to pitch in.

Kids need the Legislature to overturn the Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of L.D. 1353, An Act to Further Reduce Student Hunger, so they can have nutritious meals throughout the summer.

This is a pivotal piece of legislation that can solve a crisis, fill the nutrition gap and ensure Maine kids are healthy and ready to learn when school begins in the fall.

This common-sense legislation means communities can be reimbursed by U.S. Department of Agriculture for providing nourishing meals for children at schools with summer programming.

Contrary to the governor’s claim that this will be an economic drain, these available federal dollars help boost the local economy by employing people such as Summer Food Service Program staff, add to the revenue of farmers and food suppliers, and reduce stress on food pantries.

Maine currently leaves $11 million of available federal funding on the table by not maximizing federal nutrition programs.

Our experience working with the Summer Food Service Program has reaffirmed time and again that school districts are in a unique position to sponsor, supervise, organize or support summer meal sites. Access to kitchen facilities and child-friendly locations, knowledge about community characteristics and existing relationships with area children and families make schools and school districts the most capable and knowledgeable partners in implementing the program.

In the rare case that a school district may not be the best fit to sponsor a summer meal site, L.D. 1353 provides for the school district to collaborate with another private or public nonprofit service institution to operate the program. Additionally, if the district determines that operating a program would be financially or logistically impractical, they can opt out by a vote of the school board.

This public, transparent process assures that the community can determine how it can best feed its children and keep them strong year round without a financial burden.

It is important to provide equal access to success, and every child has the basic human right to healthy food. If we want children of families who struggle to make ends meet to learn at the same level as other kids, we need to invest in those children. In doing so, we invest in our future.

Preble Street asks that people join in its work to end childhood hunger by contacting their legislators and encouraging them to vote to override the veto of L.D. 1353, An Act to Further Reduce Student Hunger.

Mark R. Swann is executive director of Preble Street, a nonprofit social service agency serving families and individuals throughout Maine.
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