Feeding a child is easy, but ending childhood hunger takes work from all of us

Each day thousands of Maine children go to school hungry. In fact, Maine is first in New England for food insecurity among our school-aged children.

The long-term consequences of food insecurity are devastating. Without enough food, children have trouble concentrating, they struggle to retain information they learn, and they are more likely to have disciplinary problems. Research shows that hungry children miss more school, perform more poorly on math tests, and are less likely to graduate high school.

In Maine today, childhood hunger is a quiet crisis. I say "quiet" because most children do not speak up about being hungry, at least not to their teachers and classmates. Some are embarrassed. Most bear their hunger with heartbreaking dignity.

Their silence allows the rest of us to convince ourselves that this isn’t happening in our community. We look away because who among us – if we knew a child did not have enough to eat – would fail to act?

But childhood hunger is real, it is happening across Maine, and it is a crisis. More than 86,473 Maine children are food-insecure – defined as someone who does not know where their next meal is coming from. They live in every county in Maine: over 2,000 children go to Bangor Public Schools.

It is an issue that cuts across geography and politics. Last summer, I chaired a bipartisan Task Force to End Student Hunger. For more than six months, we heard from experts – those people who are out in the field working day in and day out on ending childhood hunger – and created a blueprint to end student hunger in five years. Those recommendations were delivered to the Legislature.

These recommendations are small steps that could have a huge impact. They won’t cost Maine taxpayers a lot of money; instead, they are funded by fully leveraging existing federal programs of which Maine is not taking full advantage.

The Task Force recommended:

– Creating public-private partnerships between schools, farms, the private sector, food distributors, and the state, to solve this problem together. Each entity brings different resources and perspectives to the issue, and working together will solve this problem more quickly and cheaply than working separately.

– Increasing participation in the fully funded USDA child nutrition programs like school breakfast, lunch, afterschool and summertime meals in and out of Maine’s schools.

– Capturing all of the nearly $50 million in unused federal funding that is already earmarked for Maine nutrition programs. There is just one purpose of this money – to help Maine end childhood hunger. It is paramount that we fully leverage existing federal resources.

In addition to the task force recommendations, I and leaders from Good Shepherd Food Bank, Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative and the Maine School Nutrition Association founded the Full Plates Full Potential campaign to ensure that all those working on ending student hunger – nonprofits, businesses, individuals, schools, farmers, and government – are working together seamlessly and effectively.

If you think ending childhood hunger won’t be easy, you’re half right. My colleague John Woods from Full Plates, Full Potential likes to say: "Solving childhood hunger is complex but feeding a child is easy."

But as the task force’s blueprint shows, there are some easy things we can do, right now, to make progress toward ending childhood hunger. These recommendations will be in front of the Maine Legislature in the form of LD 933 in the coming weeks. I encourage my colleagues to pass LD 933, and I urge my fellow business leaders, community leaders, and elected officials at every level to learn about the hunger issues in your community.

Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland is the Democratic leader in the Maine Senate.