Our View: LePage should back bill to close student food gap

A federal program aimed at filling this gap is gaining ground in Maine. For the first time since it was launched in the 1970s, the Summer Food Service Program is providing free meals in every county in the state. The Maine Department of Education, which oversees the program here, enabled this expansion by stepping up outreach to eligible families and to schools and agencies that could host new sites.

Though the program is making inroads, it’s still not reaching enough kids. More than 85,000 Maine children qualify for free- or reduced-price school meals, which means they’re also eligible for free summer meals. Only about 13,600 of these kids, however, take part in the summer program.

Given the number of hungry kids, and the impact hunger has on their ability to learn, it’s good news that the Legislature has just approved a proposal to help close this summertime hunger gap. The bill now goes to Gov. LePage; if he signs it, he’ll help Maine leverage federal funds to ensure that all Maine kids get enough to eat all year round.

The bill in question, L.D. 1353, would help more Maine students get the nutrition they need to prepare them for the next school year. It would mandate the Summer Food Service Program at schools where a majority of students qualify for subsidized meals. The school district could work with another organization to host the program, with the option of bowing out entirely if a public hearing and vote affirm that that’s the only practical thing to do.

For too many K-12 students in Maine, summer vacation is a mixed blessing. When school’s in session, these children and teenagers get free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. But once school’s out for the year, they lose access to these sources of food

This makes sense. Schools have the infrastructure and the food-service experience to support a successful summer meal program, and they’re familiar gathering places in Maine communities.

By requiring eligible schools to take part in the Summer Food Service Program, L.D. 1353 would allow Maine to take greater advantage of federal resources. We currently get about $1 million a year in federal funds through the program. If all the Maine youths who qualify for the program took part in it, that payment would be about $11 million — and it covers the cost of food.

Programs that ensure a healthy diet for kids are a win-win for all of us. Research shows that kids from low-income households who have access to summer meals are more likely than other disadvantaged kids to retain what they just spent months learning. During the school year, these same kids, fortified by access to school lunch programs, are better equipped to absorb information and to go on to become productive members of society.

L.D. 1353 would serve the best interests of Maine students while still giving schools local control and options. Maine legislators have recognized the central role that adequate nutrition plays in academic and life success; we hope that Gov. LePage heeds the lawmakers’ example.