I’m Garrett Martin, Executive Director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy. I appreciate the opportunity to join the Maine Council of Churches and our other partner organizations to address the issue of hunger in Maine.
For more than 17 years, MECEP has worked to advance public policies that help Maine people prosper in a strong, fair and sustainable economy. Maintaining a strong safety net for families and children is an essential component of that mission. This is particularly true given the number of families that are struggling to make ends meet as a result of the recession.
In 2011, more than 69,000 eligible Maine kids receive a free or reduced price lunch each day during the school year, but over the summer months that number plummeted to less than 8,000 daily. A forthcoming MECEP study entitled “Child Hunger Doesn’t End with the School Year” details Maine’s underutilization of the federally funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and presents specific recommendations for ensuring that when the school year ends, tens of thousands of Maine children don’t have to face another summer of hunger.
Federal nutrition assistance is crucial to stemming child hunger in Maine. In half of the state’s schools, 50% or more of students are eligible for subsidized lunches. In 1 in 7 Maine schools, 70% or higher of students qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Some even have a 100% eligibility rate.
As our new study’s title emphasizes, the need for nutrition assistance does not end when school adjourns in June. Maine received $1.1 million in Summer Food Service Program funds in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state failed to take advantage of another $10 million available to feed Maine children under the program. Two counties – Hancock and Lincoln – have no summer food sites while three others – Knox, Piscataquis, and Sagadahoc – meet less than 5% of need. While there are examples of communities that have had success in addressing this issue, we must do a better job feeding Maine’s hungry children during the summer months.
Toward this end, MECEP is proud to join the Maine Council of Churches, Maine Equal Justice Partners, Preble Street, Maine AARP and the Muskie School of Public Service in the Maine Hunger Initiative. Together, we are working to promote higher Summer Food Service Program participation rates so that Maine children get the food they need to stay healthy during the summer and return to school ready to learn.
MECEP’s study outlines specific recommendations to improve Summer Food Service Program participation. Dedicating a full-time position at the Maine Department of Education to expanding Summer Food Service Program is an important first step that has proven effective in other states. Other recommendations include working with current institutional sponsors to increase sites offering Summer Food Service Program meals to eligible children; convening a Summer Food Advisory Council to support both school and community based site development; improving outreach and publicity around existing summer food sites; and using existing community transportation services to provide children in rural areas with greater access to meal sites.
To assure economic security for Maine families over time, we must work to create good jobs, increase wages and benefits and strengthen services that protect working families from financial distress. In the meantime, Maine must use federal funds available today to abate child hunger throughout the year. We all have a stake in assuring that every Maine child has access to nutritious meals to keep them healthy and strong. Their future and ours depends on it.