When it comes to hunger, Maine has the unfortunate distinction of leading almost every other state: third in the nation for food insecurity. And when it comes to kids, the picture is also stark: More than 84,000 Maine children qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.
But nearly 70,000 of them do not have access to summer food programs. And as a former school nutrition director for nearly 50 years, Democratic Rep. Helen Rankin of Hiram says she was forced to confront those sobering statistics up close.
“More and more and more I realized the importance of their having a good meal,” she said. “And when the school year ended I knew these hungry students would not be getting a good meal, perhaps in many cases, and they would not have access to food. Hunger does not take a summer vacation.”
Sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, the bill would encourage schools to participate in the federal Summer Food Service Program, but it does not mandate participation. And as one lawmaker put it, it doesn’t create an open-door cafeteria for all children. It simply requires that schools which offer summer instruction or recreation programs make lunch available to those who qualify.
Schools are reimbursed for 100 percent of the costs through the program. But some lawmakers reject the idea that school districts, already faced with tremendous responsibility, should be told how to care for their students. Rep. Peter Johnson is a Republican from Greenville, where he says at least half the kids in his district qualify for free or reduced lunch and where schools are already sending food home with kids on the weekends.
“As a matter of fact, I think it’s condescending for this body to think we have to pass a law to tell responsible individuals to take care of their citizens. Thank you very much,” he said.
But supporters say the program is underutilized and that it is a moral obligation to ensure that children are not going hungry. Democratic Rep. Paulette Beaudoin of Biddeford expressed disbelief that there could be disagreement over the issue.
“I can’t believe that our governor also vetoed this!” she said. “A lot of people are out of work today and not on welfare. They have no jobs. I think it’s time for us to get together, put our feelings aside and vote for these children to eat.”
But at times, debate did highlight the longtime tension between Republicans and Democrats about welfare reform, and whether those parents whose children qualify for something like free and reduced lunch means they must also be held accountable for something. Lance Harvell is a Republican from Farmington.
“And I ask this body: Is it too much to ask people that are receiving state aid to have their children fed and dressed when they show up for school? I don’t think it is! Because I think giving and caring is a two-way street.”
“First off, I was one of these children that over the course of the summer that had a difficult time simply getting fed,” said Rep. Corey Wilson of Augusta, one of four Republicans who voted to override the governor’s veto of the bill. He says he grew up poor and his family relied on food from a local food pantry and from the school breakfast and lunch programs.
“I feel that we have an opportunity to feed children and I think that if we ever have that opportunity that we should go for it,” he said.
Wilson says he understands why some lawmakers may be concerned about funding any additional programming, but he says he thinks this is one that they have an obligation to find money for.