Measure increases access to federal summer food program

AUGUSTA–This morning, the Senate voted 25-10 to override Governor LePage’s veto of a bill to feed hungry students by increasing participation in the federal Summer Food Services Program.

“This is a victory for Maine students. This bill will help thousands of hungry students all across Maine perform better in school because they will have access to food in the summertime,” said Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland, the sponsor of the bill.

More than 84,000 Maine children qualify for free and reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program, but only 14,000 have access to a summer food program.

“I believe that all my fellow Senators, whether you’ve experienced it personally or not, know in your hearts that no child deserves to go hungry. No child should be blamed for being poor,” said Senator Chris Johnson of Somerville. “I
also know as a member of the Education Committee, and of an RSU Board, that it’s not too much to ask schools to have a conversation about whether to have a summer food service program. I say conversation, because that is all this bill requires. There is no mandate. If a school finds the administrative costs to burdensome, or cannot find a partner organization, they can simply opt out.”

The measure requires eligible schools (schools with more than half of their students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches that hold summer activities) take advantage of the Summer Food Services Program, a federal program administered by the USDA. The federal program reimburses school districts for 100% of the cost of food for a summer food program, and schools can opt out of the program if they cannot find a partner organization such as a church, civic organization, nonprofit, or other school or if the cost is too great.

“Early in my career, I worked as a Head Start teacher and saw firsthand the connection between a good breakfast or lunch and the readiness to learn,” said Senator Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic. ”If we want our children to fulfill their potential, it is crucial that we provide them with a strong foundation. We need to feed our children’s bodies, minds, and souls.”

About 20 percent of children in Maine are food insecure, and USDA research has shown that households with children experience an increase in food insecurity during the summer.

“There are more than 3,000 children in my district who are eligible to receive food from the summer food program. At a time when more families are struggling to make ends meet and more children are hungry, it is irresponsible and unconscionable of us not to do everything we can to reduce student hunger,” said Senator Colleen Lachowicz of Waterville.

Maine now has the third highest rate of hunger in the country, up from seventh just last year.

“When children don’t get enough nutritious food, they fall behind physically, cognitively, academically, emotionally, and socially,” said Senator Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth. “This bill offers a cost effective way to help ensure 70,000 Maine children have a better chance to start the school year on the same footing as their peers – sharp, curious, and ready to learn.”

This is the seventh veto of Governor LePage’s that the Senate has overridden. In January, the Legislature overrode Governor LePage’s veto of a bill to help people quit smoking. Last year, the Legislature overrode Governor LePage’s veto of the state’s two-year budget, as well as vetoes of a comprehensive omnibus energy bill, a measure sponsored by Senator Emily Cain of Orono to provide funding to the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) Council of Maine, a bill adjusting fees for county registries of deeds, and a bill to require warrants for cell phone tracking.

The bill, LD 1353, “An Act To Further Reduce Student Hunger,” will now be sent to the House for an override vote.