Some 83,000 Maine children quality for free of reduced school lunches. But what happens to them during the summer break, when schools are out and cafeterias are closed? Well, according to estimates, only 15 percent of qualifying children get summer meals. Today in Portland, anti-hunger groups announced the expansion of efforts in southern Maine to make sure children have access to the right nutrition 12 months of the year.
Here at the Riverton Park Community Center in Portland, a group of neighborhood kids, many of them fresh from morning soccer camp, tuck into their free lunch.
Among them is nine-year-old Jasem Al-Jubyoy. “I had, like, bread, and we had, like, chicken inside it, like, cheese and some salad, and we got a choice of milk–and I picked white.”
The center serves up to 120 children a day from this largely Somali immigrant community, five days a week during the summer months.
Community worker Hassan Elsadig says without this service, many of the children would risk going hungry over the summer. “I think it’s really important, especially in terms of building a sense of community–the kids know that their community will provide for them in terms of food.”
This center is one of 218 across the state providing lunches–and sometimes breakfast–to schoolchildren. They’re specifically designed to help kids who qualify for free or reduced school meals.
Despite the efforts of programs like this, Maine still ranks poorly when it comes to hunger issues. The USDA cites the Pine Tree state as the second-hungriest in the country, while according to non-profit Feeding America, Maine has the eighth-highest rate of childhood hunger.
Michael Brennan from USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, says more needs to be done. “On a daily basis in Cumberland County there are 12,000 students–12,000 students–that receive free and reduced lunch. In the summer, 1,800.”
Brennan says many of them simply go without because there’s no way of feeding them when the schools are out. To help close this gap, 15 new summer meal sites are being opened in Cumberland County. The announcement was made in a church in Portland, one of a number of private and non-profit sponsors working with the state to address the issue.
“You have to be well-fed to be well-read–or to put it another way, to be schooled you must be fueled,” said guest speaker Joel Berg, the USDA coordinator of Community Food Security in the Clinton administration who now runs the New York City Coalition against Hunger.
Berg is also an author and nationally-renowned nutrition expert. “School lunch is so effective and it has been for decades because you have a captive audience,” he says. “Unless kids are in summer school, you don’t have a captive audience. And that’s great kids have a fun summer, they get to play. they get to relax, but a huge downside of that is they do not have access to summer meals, so it does require a lot more work.”
Berg says while the upfront costs of setting up a meals program have to met by the sponsor, the federal goverrnment will reimburse those costs once the site is up and running.
Speakers at the event praised the efforts of Democratic State Sen. Justin Alfond, of Portland, who announced the unanimous passage of LD 860, an Act to Reduce Student Hunger.
Alfond hopes the example being set by Cumberland County will be taken up in other parts of the state. “When we passed this legislation, one-quarter of Maine counties had zero summer meal sites. There are schools in Maine with 70 percent of children qualifying for these nutritious lunch programs during the school year, yet there’s no lunch site during the summer time.”
The legislation calls for the establishment of federally-funded summer food service programs in areas where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals. Alfond expressed disappointment that Gov. Paul LePage chose not to sign LD 860. When contacted by MPBN, a spokesman in the governor’s office declined to comment on the issue.
For more information about the summer food service program, click here.