For too many K-12 students in Maine, summer vacation is a mixed blessing. When school’s in session, these children and teenagers get free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. After school lets out for the summer, however, they lose access to these sources of food.

A federal program aimed at filling this gap is gaining ground in Maine. For the first time since it was launched in the 1970s, the Summer Food Service Program is providing free meals in every county in the state. The Maine Department of Education, which oversees the program, enabled this expansion by stepping up outreach to eligible families and to schools and agencies to host new sites.

Though the program is making inroads, it’s still not reaching enough kids. More than 85,000 Maine children qualify for free- or reduced-price school meals, which means they’re also eligible for free summer meals. Only about 13,600 of these kids, however, take part in the summer program.

Given the number of hungry kids, and the impact hunger has on their ability to learn, it’s good news that the Legislature has approved a proposal that helps close this summertime hunger gap. The proposal now goes to Gov. Paul LePage; if he signs it, he’ll help Maine leverage federal resources to ensure that all Maine kids get enough to eat all year round.

The bill, L.D. 1353, will help ensure that more Maine students get the nutrition they need to prepare them for the next school year. L.D. 1353 mandates the Summer Food Service Program at schools where the majority of the students qualify for subsidized meals. The district could work with another organization to host the program, with the option of bowing out entirely if a public hearing and vote affirms that that’s the right thing to do.

This makes sense. Schools have the infrastructure and food-service experience to support a successful summer meal program, and they’re familiar local gathering places in Maine communities.

By mandating Summer Food Service Program participation, L.D. 1353 will allow Maine to take greater advantage of federal resources. We currently get about $1 million in federal funds through the program. If all the Maine youths who qualify for the program took part in it, that payment would be about $11 million — and it covers the cost of food.

Programs that ensure a healthy diet for kids are a win-win for all of us. Kids from low-income households who take part in summer food programs are more likely than other disadvantaged kids to retain what they just spent months learning. After school starts, they’ll be better equipped to study and learn, and they’ll leave school better prepared to lead productive lives.

L.D. 1353 serves the best interests of Maine students while still giving schools local control and options. Maine legislators has recognized the central role that adequate nutrition plays in academic and life success; we hope that LePage heeds the lawmakers’ example.

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