In our household, snacks are an important item on our shopping list. They’re not just for our own kids — my wife, a local teacher, takes them to school for students who might not have a snack of their own. At this point, I do not ask why.

Food insecurity is real. The hunger of children in our community is real.

Maine is the most food insecure state in New England. For one in four Maine children, the reality is that they can’t count on breakfast, lunch and dinner each day and snacks when their stomachs rumble between meals. They cannot even be certain when their next meal will be.

My wife and her colleagues see how hunger affects kids in the classroom, on the playground and around the community. Our third-grader doesn’t use the phrase “food insecurity” but she is well aware that some of her friends don’t always have enough to eat. Those pretzels or goldfish crackers that my wife packs up to take to school might help with hunger for a time, but we all know that much more is needed.

This academic year, School Administrative District 54 took an important step toward combating student hunger. All of the district’s 2,600 students can now have breakfast and lunch at their schools for free.

SAD 54, which serves Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield, is taking advantage of a new federal program that allows this option for districts where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free lunches. Pilot areas for the program, called Community Eligibility, have seen great success, and I don’t see any reason that we wouldn’t see the same results here.

Community Eligibility reduces paperwork for school officials and takes important steps to ensure that students aren’t falling through the cracks. It increases access to healthful breakfasts and lunches for all of the community’s students. It eliminates the cost of reduced-price lunches from low-income household budgets. It removes any stigma kids or families may feel is associated with free or reduced-price school meals.

I’m proud that SAD 54 is a leader on this front. Those in the leadership of SAD 54 took a bold step to address student hunger, and all our children are better off because of it. The Community Eligibility became available in Maine only this year, and SAD 54 is one of a handful of schools or districts in the state that have signed up for this option.

It’s one example of the problem-solving and caring in our community when it comes to hungry kids. At the park where I work, two other programs have been very successful, thanks to the dedication of our local recreation department. Both efforts — one for any community child and another for day campers — recognize that food insecurity among students doesn’t disappear when the academic year ends. Hunger is a year-round problem that doesn’t take a vacation.

Student hunger is not just a local problem for our community. It’s a statewide concern that requires a coordinated effort.

The Task Force to End Student Hunger is working on a plan for all of Maine. Created by legislation this year, it is made up of lawmakers, policy experts and the folks who are on the frontlines in the battle against student hunger.

The task force is working to get meals to hungry students, including by leveraging millions of federal dollars that Maine can use to create and build upon self-sustaining programs. The task force, led by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the sponsor of the legislation, and Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, a retired teacher, will give its recommendations to the Legislature that convenes in January.

Task force members know, just as Laura Pineo, SAD 54’s school nutrition director does, that children who are hungry don’t do as well in school.

Students who participate in school meals programs not only eat more healthfully — more fruit and vegetables and milk and less fat — but also have better concentration, memory recall and test scores and fewer instances of tardiness, disciplinary referrals and visiting the school nurse, Pineo told the Legislature’s Education Committee earlier this year.

Let’s listen to the people who work with our kids in the schools and the folks who know how important it is to eradicate student hunger. Making sure that kids don’t have to worry about their next meal is something we can all get behind.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is the assistant House majority leader.

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