Summer Isn’t a Vacation from Hunger

With July 4th almost here and school out of session, the summer has undeniably begun.  However, the summer can be one of the most difficult times for struggling families in Maine and around the nation.  Nearly one in four children in Maine lack adequate food.  That’s about 63,000 kids.  Recent legislation expands children’s access to food in the summer and will greatly improve the lives and health of young Mainers.

According to the Maine Department of Education, almost half (46.2%) of Maine children are eligible for free or reduced price lunch because of their family’s income level.  School lunch eligibility levels have grown every year from 36.42% in 2007 before the recession.  While the National School Lunch (NSL) program’s subsidized meals offer students some food security during the school year, too many kids lose this safety net in the summer.  Thankfully, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) offers some relief for low-income families.  This federal program reimburses communities for food served at sites where children can go for free meals in the summer.

LD 1353, An Act to Further Reduce Student Hunger, is common sense legislation that will improve access to healthy food for lower-income children throughout the state.  As Maine’s 126th legislature comes to an end, this important bill is pending final enactment after being approved by the appropriations committee.

Essentially this bill continues previous efforts to expand the summer food program.  LD 1353 requires that schools with at least 50% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year provide a summer meals site.  Schools can host these sites alone or in cooperation with a service group, provided the meals site is within the area served by the school.  This is not a binding mandate.  If the program is not financially or logistically sound in a school district, the Department of Education can grant waivers if the local school board votes against the program after a public hearing.

Summer meals can greatly reduce child hunger in Maine.  MECEP analysis shows that only 16% of eligible students used the summer meals, primarily due to a lack of convenient sites.  In 2012 over half of Maine’s schools had a free or reduced lunch eligibility rate of 50% or more.  Maine schools can increase the number of meal sites across the state.  As David Leighton, food service director for RSU 19 recently said, “Feeding our kids over the summer is the best thing we can do. The importance of getting them ready to come back to school well-nourished is beyond words.”

Maine kids need for the legislature to give final passage to LD 1353 and for Governor LePage to sign it into law before wrapping up business. Hungry Maine children are not an option.

Be sure to watch “Hunger Doesn’t End with the School Year: Maine’s Summer Food Program,” on MECEP’s cable television public affairs program State of the State, which will air on Time Warner Cable’s Channel 9 starting July 9 and will run for two weeks on Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays at 6:00 p.m., and Fridays at 10:00 a.m.