The Task Force to End Student Hunger unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to end childhood hunger in Maine through activating public-private partnerships and capturing nearly $50 million in unused federal funding already earmarked for Maine nutrition programs.
"We all are letting Maine’s children down. Today, in all sixteen counties, in every school district across our state, there are thousands of hungry children who go to bed hungry and wake up even hungrier," said Maine State Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond, who served as the Task Force’s co-chair. "We can all agree, wholeheartedly, that we need to make our schools a healthy learning environment. But we must also make sure that our children have the nutritional building blocks for success in school and out on the playground."
Currently, in Maine, there are more than 86,000 school-aged children who are hungry, or "food insecure." And, forty-six percent of school-aged children qualify for free and reduced meals–ranking Maine first in New England and third in the United States for food insecurity.
"Our goal is straightforward: To end childhood hunger in five years. It’s an ambitious goal but it’s one we can achieve because the problem we’re tackling is solvable," said Representative Tori Kornfield, who served as the Task Force’s co-chair. "We do, however, need total buy-in from all who care about Maine’s children, schools, and our state’s future."
The 17-member panel that includes lawmakers and stakeholders began meeting last summer and culminated their work with a 27-page report that includes two pieces of legislation and a blueprint for further action.
The report highlights three major immediate action items:
increase public awareness of childhood hunger and its link to academic success;
increase participation in the child nutrition programs in and outside of Maine’s schools;
establish partnerships between farms, the private sector, food distributors, the State of Maine, and other stakeholders.
"Childhood hunger isn’t just a school problem. It’s not just a family problem. And, so we can’t just look to schools and families to have the solution," said State Senator Alfond. "Our ideas don’t require much state money. Instead, we need state government to be a leader by collaborating with the private sector, non-profits and volunteers so that can finally end childhood hunger in Maine."
Senator Alfond has been a leading advocate of solving childhood hunger during his tenure in the Maine Senate. Last year, he sponsored a measure that expanded summer food programs in Maine. That bill was vetoed by Gov. LePage and later overridden by the Legislature.
Ron Adams, the legislative chair of Maine School Nutrition Association and the food director in the Portland Public Schools, pointed out the $48 million that Maine foregoes every in USDA food nutrition programs.
Another area of concern by the Task Force members is the more than 20,000 Maine children who qualify for nutrition programs but are not signed up. Often times, barriers such as stigma and not wanting to identify as a child or family needing help prevent enrollment. Other challenges include the time of day when the food is served, the amount of time given for the child to eat, or the available food options.
Among other recommendations to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, the Task Force proposed legislation that (a) creates, for the next five years, a full time commission exclusively focused on ending student hunger; (b) adds school nutrition costs into the EPS funding formula; ( c) requires the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to collaborate, work with Maine’s Congressional delegation, and data share on childhood hunger; and, (d) convenes a working group to identify the opportunities and challenges related to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)–a new provision that allows schools with 40% of their children qualifying for SNAP, TANF and other benefit programs to offer meals at no cost to all students.
Amy Gallant, of Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative summed it up with, "Let’s challenge ourselves to be the first state in the nation to end childhood hunger."
The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will be reviewing the Task Force’s recommendations in the weeks to come.