Kristen Miale: Summer Food Service Program crucial to poor families

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A quarter of Maine children are considered food insecure, meaning they are not receiving the nutritious food they need to grow, to learn, and to live healthy lives. That means one in every four Maine children is facing hunger.

The Summer Food Service Program is a crucial support for thousands of Maine families. More than 80,000 children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals in school, and often receive both breakfast and lunch.

During the summer, when school is no longer in session, where do they turn for a healthy meal? Unfortunately, far too often, these children lack access to adequate food at home and many go hungry during the summer months.

For a family with two school-age children, the parents have to come up with more than 200 additional meals during the summer, in addition to snacks. This added expense is extremely difficult for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

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SFSP can be a lifeline for these families. The meals are fully funded by the federal government, so program expenses are minimal. And yet, in recent years, despite the best efforts of the Department of Education and local communities, only approximately 16 percent of eligible children have accessed SFSP meals during the summer.

By not taking full advantage of this program, Maine is leaving $11 million of federal money on the table each year and missing an opportunity to nourish kids who are living in food-insecure homes. That is $11 million that could be spent at Maine-based food service companies.

Each summer, Good Shepherd Food-Bank operates five summer meal sites in Bangor in partnership with several community organizations. We are able to see, first-hand, the impact the program has on Maine children.

When the kids come to understand that they can count on lunch and snacks every day, their behavior improves, their attitudes improve, and they can enjoy the summer like so many of their peers do. And when the school year comes around again, they are more ready to learn.

Good Shepherd Food-Bank’s collaboration with local agencies in Bangor is a good example of how the entire burden of expanding SFSP does not need to fall on the school system. Local nonprofit agencies and volunteers, together with towns and municipalities, can play an important role in growing the program throughout the state. By bringing everyone to the table, we can make sure kids receive the nutritious food they need.

LD 1353,

which was submitted to the Legislature by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, last year and recently vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, is a reasonable next step in ensuring Maine children have access to adequate food during the summer.

The bill applies only to schools where a majority of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. For schools that meet that qualification, the bill gives them the opportunity to collaborate with another organization to facilitate the program.

And if a school, together with its local community, cannot find a way to make the program work in its town, the bill gives officials an out — they simply have to hold a public hearing and take a vote.

Expanding the summer meals program would mean fewer families would need to depend on their local food pantry for their kids’ meals during the summer. We see demand rise at food pantries each summer, and many pantries struggle to keep the shelves stocked during this time of increased need.

By taking advantage of the federal dollars being left on the table through the Summer Food Service Program, we could alleviate some of the burden from our already overburdened hunger relief charities.

Kristen Miale is president of Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.

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