There are 150 fewer children in Oxford County who are hungry this summer. Those children now eat a nutritious lunch with fruit, sandwich and milk, thanks to five new federal Summer Food Service meal sites opened by the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative, with community support from RSU 16 food services, local businesses and volunteers.
Recently, we visited sites in Oxford and Paris, where a school employee remarked, "Some kids cry when vacation comes. They are really struggling and don’t want the summer off. They’re worried about the middle meal. Kids count on that meal."
Last spring, 83,000 Maine children received free or reduced price "middle meals" at school. The day summer vacation began and children streamed out the doors for 10 weeks, 70,000 of those children lost a vital source of nutrition.
In every county in Maine, summer vacation brings not only sunshine but also hunger. School lunches help keep children in Maine ready to learn, play and grow for three seasons of the year.
Without school lunches, children in families that can’t make ends meet – in our communities and all across the state – go hungry. And kids who spend a summer without adequate nutrition return to school less able to learn.
The correlation between hunger and poor school performance is well-documented. By ninth grade, summer learning loss accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap between lower-income and middle-income students, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.
Summer meals keep children healthy and help them succeed in school, which leads to better jobs and healthier lives.
So why is any child in Maine at risk of hunger?
It’s not for lack of funding. According to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, Maine uses only 10 percent of federal funds allocated to feed hungry children, leaving $10 million behind; $10 million that would not only feed hungry children today and improve their prospects, but also stimulate local economies and create more sustainable jobs.
In 1968 the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Summer Food Service Program, an extension of the national school lunch program, in response to increased risks of hunger and poor school performance among children who were undernourished during the summer.
Unfortunately, 45 years later, Summer Meals remain the most underutilized USDA nutrition program. In Maine it feeds only 16 percent of eligible children.
Responding to that problem, Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative has opened 49 new sites, like those in Oxford County.
In Washington County, there are plans to team up with lobstermen and fishermen to ferry meals from Lubec, where meals are prepared, to Eastport, which is an hour away by car but only 10 minutes by boat.
In Bucksport, the meal site is on the school lawn across from the town pool, and kids come wrapped in towels and ready to eat.
In Naples and Casco, local snowmobile clubs and ice cream shops join other community groups taking turns serving summer meals.
In Androscoggin County, school board members pitch in at the Tripp Lake Beach meal site.
In Windham, grandmothers in a senior housing complex feed neighborhood kids outside on picnic blankets.
We all need to help make summer lunches a success. We need school food services and catering businesses to make lunches, schools to provide kitchen space or sites, community volunteers to hand out lunches, and local businesses to distribute information or donate equipment.
We are doing everything we can to make sure we protect vital USDA funding to pay for summer meals. But we need the school districts and community leaders to work with the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Hunger Initiative to make sure there is a summer meal on the table for every child in Maine who needs it.
A child’s hunger does not end when school is over, and it can undermine their educational outlook and their contribution to this state.
The resources are available to make summer lunches a sustainable reality for the thousands of school children who need them.
Some 70,000 Maine children are counting on us. In every town and village in Maine, anyone who can must get involved.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud represents Maine’s Second Congressional District. Mark Swann is executive director of Preble Street, an organization based in Portland whose mission is to provide accessible, barrier-free services to empower people experiencing problems with homelessness, housing, hunger and poverty, and to advocate for solutions to those problems.