Legislature should override LePage’s veto of bill that fills in summer hunger gap for children

It’s no secret that far too many children go hungry in Maine. Less widely known is that there are effective and affordable ways to reach our most at-risk students both during the school year, and when classes let out for vacation.

Extending free or reduced-priced lunches during the summer months is one measure helping to fill the nutrition gap for children. As a state, we’ve had some success encouraging school districts to provide summer meals through a federal program that covers the costs. Yet we have a long way to go.

Incredibly, the governor vetoed a bill last month to expand this service in schools where half of the students qualify for supported meals. This comes as an estimated 80,000 kids in Maine do not get enough to eat. That’s almost one in every four children.

Gov. Paul LePage is just plain wrong on this. Legislators should override his veto and regain momentum to end the cycle of hunger, which too often leads to children falling behind in school.

As a business owner and concerned citizen, I believe we need the combined efforts of the private sector, civic groups and churches to reduce childhood hunger in partnership with government. Yet the government’s key role in addressing poverty should not be forfeited for political convenience or ideology.

Maine ranks first in New England for childhood food insecurity and recently went "up" the list to the third highest rate nationally for households with "very low" food security. A child who goes to school hungry does not reach his or her full potential. Similarly, a lack of healthy eating during the summer may set him up for failure when classes resume. When that happens, we all lose. All Mainers share a duty to reverse this trend, which has worsened in a tough economy.

In his veto, the governor called the bill an "irresponsible unfunded mandate." But it is hardly that. Sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and robustly supported last year by lawmakers, the bill ensures that local control is maintained. Community groups or churches may sponsor a Summer Food Service Program. Schools may opt out if they cannot find a local partner to help serve summer meals.

Like the school lunch programs during the academic year, the federal government pays for summer meals to help keep our most at-risk kids healthy. School districts are reimbursed for 100 percent of food costs.

Unfortunately, our state is not yet taking full advantage of an existing summer meal initiative.

In 2011, Maine’s poorest school districts were encouraged by the Legislature to provide summer meals at schools where more than three-quarters of the students receive a free or reduced-price lunch. Yet a year later, only about 16 percent of meal-eligible students in these areas were fed during the summer, according to Preble Street, a social services agency in Portland. Some 37 school districts where more than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches lacked summer food programs in 2013, according to state education officials.

This means youths going without summer meals in communities throughout the state – from Easton in Aroostook County to Jonesboro and other Washington County towns, from Milo down to Oxford and elsewhere.

In a nation as rich as ours, we should be doing better. There is no place for childhood hunger, which is such a severe roadblock to learning.

Next month in my hometown of Ogunquit, three well known chefs will host a dinner fundraiser to help address this problem in our state. The "No Kid Hungry" event at the Five-O Restaurant on March 20 will support the nonprofit Share Our Strength’s work to connect kids with nutritious foods, and teach low-income families to cook healthy and affordable meals. I expect this will be a collaborative effort built on the good will of other entrepreneurs, local residents and friends.

These efforts are decidedly needed, especially during times that are so dire for many Mainers. Our children deserve more support from our government as well, particularly when we have the tools already in hand.

Donato Tramuto is the founder and chairman of an international health care company and chairman of Prego LLC, a holding company for the Five-O Restaurant in Ogunquit, where he resides. He leads the not-for-profit Tramuto Foundation and is chairman and founder of Health eVillages, an international nonprofit organization that provides mobile health technology in underserved parts of the world.