AUGUSTA, Maine — Childhood hunger has been an ongoing problem in Maine for years. The pandemic has only heightened the issue and created new challenges—but some Maine lawmakers are hoping to help.
On Thursday, May 20 at noon, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is expected to introduce the "Kids First" plan, which includes two bills. The first, LD 1712, "An Act To Support Children's Healthy Development and School Success," is designed to address child care needs and the so-called "child care desert(s)" in Maine. The other, LD 1679, "An Act To Address Student Hunger through Expanding Access to Free School Meals," is designed to address childhood hunger in Maine.
According to Jackson's plan, Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England, with one in six children lacking access to reliable nutrition. Before the pandemic, about 80,000 students were eligible for free school meals, but the number of kids in Maine experiencing food security is expected to grow by about 40 percent as families continue to take economic hits.
LD 1679 would require the state of Maine to pay the difference between the federal requirement for free school breakfast or lunch and the full price of a breakfast or lunch at no cost to students who are ineligible for free or reduced-price meals, thus creating a universal, free school lunch program.
Justin Strasburger, the executive director of Full Plates Full Potential, supports the bill. He said free school lunches would eliminate stigma, resulting in more kids—especially those who are really in need—actually taking advantage of resources. He also said that income isn't always a perfect indicator of food security, since sometimes families may be caring for other family members who are not dependents, or may have recently lost a job, etc. Strasburger thinks that good nutrition is an investment in Maine's future.
"There are lots of studies out there that show that students who are well-fed and have healthy meals learn more. They retain information better. They perform better on testing and academically," Strasburger said. "There is an untold number—it's kind of hard to quantify—but there's untold waste, in terms of waste of money in our education system right now that could be traced back to students just not having good quality meals."
Strasburger said he is hoping to see bipartisan support for this plan but recognizes cost could be an issue. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Maine Senate Republicans said they don't have enough information to comment on these bills yet, since neither has had a work session in committee.