MEXICO, Maine — It's a problem that affects one in five kids across Maine -- empty plates and hungry bellies.
In the Rumford and Mexico areas, school officials say that number is closer to 3 or 4 out of every 5 children.
A new summer feeding location in the RSU 10 school district is working to fight this epidemic. Now, four locations in the area offer summer meals to kids under 18 years old -- Mexico Public Library, Rumford Public Library, Buckfield's Calvin Lyons Memorial Playground, and Rumford Elementary School.
Jeanne LaPointe is the School Nutrition Director for RSU 10. She started the summer feeding program after realizing the dire need in areas like her school district.
"We see a lot of our students where we are the sole source of food in their day. We know that many of them go home on weekends, and we hear stories where the simply do not eat."
In an effort to reach kids earlier, LaPointe worked hard with her staff this year to start summer feeding right after the end of school. As result, three sites opened this week and will serve food Monday through Friday from noon to 12:45 p.m. until August 16. The Rumford Elementary School location opens on Monday, July 9 and will serve breakfast and lunch through August 3.
The summer program is in its sixth consecutive year -- but one of this year's new locations at Mexico Public Library is special. It gives kids an opportunity to read and socialize -- and that is made apparent through sticky fingers, giggling conversations, and playtime with colorful ribbons.
Marilla Couch is the library's director. She says she is proud to be a host for the feeding program because she knows how important food is to kids.
"If a child is hungry, they don’t learn as well. And if they’re hungry, they’re more apt to get into arguments, fights, and you know – complain about every least little thing."
Couch says that on Friday after meal time, kids can take part in a summer reading activity. The fun is extended to parents, too. They can participate in sketch programs, 'paint and pop', card making, and other social events.
"A library is not just a library anymore," said Couch. "It’s not just for taking a couple of books out. And so to me, it’s just a wonderful, well-rounded place."
The summer feeding program is sponsored by the USDA, but it also gets help from more local organizations. Full Plates provides a cash grant to the district, and the Oxford Federal Credit Union gives financial assistance and a literal helping hand.
"It’s fantastic to interact with the kids and see the smiles on their faces -- it’s amazing," said OFCU President and CEO Matt Kaubris. "When I grew up, I always had a full belly, and so it was never a concern. So I can’t imagine focusing on school work or even playing during the summer time when that hunger is gnawing at you."
Jeanine Arsenault is mother to a six and eight-year-old in Mexico. She expressed how thankful she is that the program cuts down on her food bill and provides healthy options and a social environment for her home-schooled children.
"It’s an opportunity for our kids to eat in a cafeteria sometimes and to get to know the lunch ladies. To go through the line was a very big deal for us, and to sit down with all of the other kids and have that experience is huge. It’s a very big deal."
LaPointe says that the reactions she sees from the community make her want to eventually expand the feeding program to cover school vacations during the school year.
"Parents are supportive and excited and positive that we’re able to provide this in our community. Folks in the community see the signs, and I get really positive feedback. You know, 'So glad you’re doing this -- so glad the school is supporting this program,'" said LaPointe. "So it's nothing but positive feedback."
The summer feeding program in RSU 10 is strong, but LaPointe says there is always opportunity for improvement across the state.
"Our kids hid it well. You know, the hungry child -- they learn how to live with it. I’ve heard stories of students who have told me, 'You know, I’m just accustomed to not eating on weekends.' These were teenagers. And that’s hard to hear."
Anyone who wants to get involved in the cause should reach out to their local school to see if they're offering a summer program. If so, LaPointe says these locations are always looking for volunteers to welcome families, help with clean-up, and spend time with the kids there.
"We want anyone under 18 coming to eat. No one should be made to feel badly about needing food."