By Maine State Senator Justin Alfond
Maine has the tools, grit to eliminate state’s quiet crisis of child hunger
But the hurdles of filling out applications and the stigma that some feel need to be surmounted.
It’s fall, and schools across our state have welcomed students back to the classroom. The start of the school year is an exciting time for every community, a time many of us look upon fondly. But while most students are ready to learn and do their best, some are facing a monumental challenge: hunger.
The Maine Department of Education reported that 86,473 of all K-12 public school students in our state – roughly 47 percent – were food insecure, meaning that the child goes without one meal every day. These children are eligible to receive free or reduced-priced meals at school.
Food insecurity is disastrous for children. Learning, concentration and discipline all suffer when a student hasn’t had enough to eat. Research has shown that children who experience hunger are more likely to struggle in school.
Childhood hunger is a quiet crisis that’s affecting all of Maine, but there are simple things we all can do to address it.
Last year, I co-chaired the bipartisan Task Force to End Student Hunger. We created a five-year blueprint to end student hunger in Maine. The first step is to enroll every eligible child in the USDA school meals program. Registration is critical for these students, and enrollment is happening right now at every school through Oct. 15.
Here’s how it works:
One of the many forms a parent gets at the beginning of a school year is a Meal Benefit Application, which determines a child’s eligibility for free and reduced-price food, which is provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eligible students can receive school breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks every day school is in session, if they need them.
But this year in Maine, many students won’t even apply.
Educators I’ve spoken with know that students in their classrooms qualify for help, which would ensure proper nutrition that may otherwise be unavailable. But year after year, they see these kids go without because they didn’t fill out the Meal Benefit Application.
Some of the reasons for that missed opportunity are simple. The form can get lost in the shuffle of all the paperwork sent home during the first weeks of school, or could be filled out incorrectly. But the real obstacle is the stigma associated with receiving free or reduced-price meals.
I know that Mainers are proud and independent people. Asking for help is not easy, and it’s never our first instinct. Plus, filling out this paperwork is deeply personal. Often, the completed form is delivered to a school leader the parents know personally.
But registration is the make-or-break moment for a child in need of food at school. When a child isn’t signed up, not only does it mean they will be one of those hungry students that most likely will struggle in school, but it also means Maine forgoes $50 million in federal funding set aside to feed our children.
So what can we all do?
• First, learn about hunger in your community. In 2014, here in Cumberland County, more than one-third of students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunch, according to data from the Maine Children’s Alliance. In nine Maine counties, more than half the students qualify. Childhood hunger affects every single community in Maine and cuts across the political spectrum.
• Next, call your local parent-teacher organization and see if child hunger is something they are working on, and volunteer to help if you can.
• Finally, let’s come together and help break the stigma of accepting free and reduced-price meals. There is no shame in accepting help if you need it.
I’m also excited to announce that Full Plates Full Potential, a statewide nonprofit targeting student hunger, will be focusing on increasing registration by testing best practices from around the country in a few Maine schools this fall.
I urge everyone to get involved in ending childhood hunger in the community. Let’s make sure we get every eligible child registered this fall.
No child should go hungry. Fortunately, Maine has all the tools and grit needed to solve this crisis.