MECEP has working on issues related to student hunger going back to 2010 when we researched and published “Child Hunger Doesn’t End with the School Year.” In this report, we examined Maine’s effectiveness in feeding hungry children using funds from the federal summer food program and found at that time that only one in ten eligible children participated the summer meals program.
MECEP supports LD 1819 because children in Maine are going hungry.
Food insecurity has increased significantly in Maine since the Great Recession. Statewide, 1 in 4 Maine children are food-insecure, meaning they are unsure when their next meal will be. Child hunger is particularly high in the western mountains and Washington County.
Increasing the number of kids who eat school meals will help make sure tens of thousands of Maine children do not go hungry.
There are programs to help, including free and reduced school breakfast and lunch, and summer meals. A new initiative, Community Eligibility, is part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which the USDA will roll it out nationwide during the 2014-2015 school year. This new policy allows schools to serve breakfast and lunch to all students, if 40% of a school’s student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
Many Maine schools exceed this 40% threshold. More than half of our public schools have at least 50% qualifying students. One in seven schools has 70% or higher eligibility rates, and sadly, a few even reach 100%.
We need to find effective, straightforward ways to help schools implement community eligibility and expand other school nutrition programs. We know Maine is a special and diverse state. Our teachers, school administrators, and parents know what will work best in their regions. That is why it is so critical to create the task force of stakeholders envisioned under LD 1819, to inform and direct this ambitious program as it is rolled out, and to help it best reach the most kids in Maine.
Alleviating hunger in school children will increase school attendance. Kids will do better on tests and school work, and they will be healthier, with fewer behavioral problems. Increasing the number of students using federal meals will also increase federal funds coming into local economies with all of the associated spin-off benefits to local farmers, grocery stores, and food suppliers and distributors. Expanding the summer meals program alone could bring $11 million into Maine each year.
With my testimony, I have included an overview of community eligibility. This summer MECEP will conduct additional research on participation rates, programs’ utilization, and costs and economic benefits to expand access to child nutrition programs in Maine. We would be happy to share that research with this task force.
Jody Harris, MECEP associate director, testifying before the Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in support of LD 1819.