SANFORD — Michelle McKinney was on her way home from picking up food at a Sanford food pantry when someone mentioned the free lunches served every weekday at schools and parks across the city.

The news could not have been more welcome for the young mother and her husband, who are trying to stretch their single income to cover their $681 monthly rent, $400 car payment and groceries. For their children, it’s just another picnic in the park.

For nearly 20 years, the Sanford School Department has provided meals during the summer to anyone who walks through the door, part of a federal effort to get nutritious food to children who might otherwise go without.

“This will help a lot,” McKinney said. “We’re struggling to pay rent and buy food for the kids.”

The federally funded summer meals program has become a critical tool for educators and hunger prevention advocates trying to feed Maine children, who are more likely to struggle with hunger than their peers in New England and across the country.

While the rate of childhood food insecurity – an official measure of hunger – has declined both in the state and nationwide, Maine still has a rate higher than the national average. In 2016, 19.8 percent of Maine children lived with food insecurity. The childhood food insecurity rate for the United States is 17.5 percent.

The government defines food insecurity as lacking consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy life. For many people, it means not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

GROWING NEED AND PARTICIPATION IN MAINE

Maine’s higher rates are linked to factors such as its rural nature, the low-wage economy and a reduction in the number of people who qualify for federally funded food stamps because of state eligibility changes.

State and local education officials and nonprofit agencies across Maine are pushing this year to open more summer meals program sites – especially in rural areas – that provide breakfast and lunch to any child under 18, no questions asked. They say the meals served are an important resource for families that struggle to afford enough food and the summer meals program leverages millions of federal dollars available to reduce childhood hunger.

Alice Leblanc, a food services worker with the school district, serves lunch to kids as part of Buxton’s summer nutrition program at Buxton Center Elementary School recently.

For the past two years, the overall number of children participating in the summer meals program has decreased nationally. But in Maine, the number of meals served has increased and the state now has the fifth-largest participation rate in the country, according to a report by the national Food Policy Action group. That rate is the percentage of all children who receive the meals.

Last year, the Maine Department of Education and meal sites in all 16 counties were reimbursed a total of more than $3 million for meals served. This year, there are nearly 450 sites across the state that will serve an estimated 745,500 meals during summer break.

In the past decade, the number of meal sites set up in schools, parks and community centers across the state has more than tripled. And Maine is one of five states that is increasing participation in the federally funded summer meals program, which was started in 1968 to bridge the meals gap that leaves children at risk of going hungry.

But despite the broad efforts to expand the program, those meals reach just under 30 percent of the children who qualify for free and reduced meals during the school year, according to hunger prevention advocates who are pushing to get more meals to Maine children who don’t have consistent access to healthful food.

One in five children in Maine is food-insecure, more than in any other New England state and more than the average across the United States. Over 50,000 Maine children live in families that struggle with hunger and often rely on free school lunches, food pantries and other emergency meal programs for food.

 

Overall, Maine ranks seventh in the nation for overall food insecurity.

In 2012, Maine had the same rate of childhood food insecurity as the nation as a whole: 22 percent. But by 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, the national rate had dropped to 17.5 percent while the Maine rate was 19.8 percent.

The government measures food insecurity based on responses to a national survey and interviews of approximately 45,000 households. The survey includes questions about how often people have to reduce portions or skip meals.

The need to get food to these children becomes critical in the summer, when kids aren’t eating meals at school and aren’t bringing home food from backpack and school pantry programs. Food pantries report an influx of families in the summer months.

Most of the summer meal sites also offer enrichment activities designed to reduce the summer learning gap, which educators say can be more pronounced in children who don’t get enough food.

“We want Maine kids to get nutritious food. We especially want kids who struggle with food insecurity to get that food, but also a lot of enrichment activities,” said Adriane Ackroyd, summer food service program coordinator for the Maine Department of Education. “It turns into an opportunity for kids who might not have access to healthy food and summer enrichment so they can come back to school ready to learn.”

THE EFFECTS OF FOOD INSECURITY ON KIDS

While about 20 percent of children overall in Maine are considered to be food-insecure, those numbers go up in rural areas.

Piscataquis County has the highest childhood food insecurity rate at 25.5 percent. More than 23 percent of children in Somerset, Washington and Aroostook counties live with hunger. York and Cumberland counties have the lowest food insecurity rates at around 17 percent.

Many people in Maine work in the low-wage job market and live in areas where housing is expensive, said Clara McConnell, director of public affairs for Good Shepherd Food Bank. Efforts to tighten up eligibility and place restrictions on the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – formerly called food stamps – led to some people being dropped from the program, she said.

“In the end, it’s simply a matter of people and families not having enough income to meet all their basic needs,” McConnell said.

Children facing hunger may struggle in school and are more likely than their peers to repeat a grade in elementary school, experience developmental impairments in areas like language and motor skills, and have more social and behavioral problems, according to educators.

“The effects of childhood food insecurity and not knowing where your next meal will come from is a toxic stress parents try to shield their children from. But kids pick up on it quickly,” said Shannon Coffin, who oversees youth and family initiative programs for Good Shepherd Food Bank.

During the academic school year, schools and community groups operate programs that send backpacks full of food home with children who need it. Other schools have pantries that families can use or host food fairs to provide people with fresh produce and pantry staples. Coffin said 74 schools now operate food pantries and 64 offer a backpack program that discreetly sends food home with children who need it.

IMPROVING ACCESS TO FOOD

Schools and other community organizations across Maine have been participating in the summer meals program for more than two decades.

The federal government began paying for summer food service programs in 1968, when about 99,000 children received meals from 1,200 sites. Nearly a decade later, the program reached an all-time high of nearly 2.8 million children receiving summer meals at 23,700 sites. As participation declined through the 1980s and ’90s, the government made a series of changes to try to boost numbers, including lifting restrictions on the number of private nonprofits that could operate summer meals program sites.

In 2015, a law went into effect in Maine that requires any district with at least one school with 50 percent or more children eligible for free and reduced meals that provides any kind of summer programming to participate in the summer meals program.

Ackroyd, who oversees the program for the state Department of Education, would like to see even more meals served. She estimates about 20 more meals sites will operate this summer than last.

“We hope by expanding the number of sites it will expand reach and allow us to serve more meals over the summer,” she said.

Despite the increase in the number of meal sites, there are still big challenges, according to people who run them. In rural areas, it is sometimes hard for students to get to the meal sites. In other areas, it’s hard to get the word out that free food is available to anyone who wants it.

To address these challenges, the Department of Education has ramped up efforts to support meal sites across the state and help schools and other groups serve more meals. The department provides training throughout the state for sponsors of meal sites and provides fliers, cards and other materials to help promote the program. This year, the department has done extra outreach in Washington and Oxford counties to try to expand the reach of the program in those rural areas.

In Portland, where 55 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, the school department last year served 15,000 summer meals. Food service director Jane McLucas estimates at least that many meals will be served this year across eight sites, including at Deering Oaks park, where a table is sometimes set up near the splash pads so families can easily grab meals.

“It’s really important that we have something available for them across the city so they can access meals they would have had at school,” said McLucas.

In York County, one of the biggest challenges of the summer meals program is reaching students in towns where they cannot easily walk to school, said Dorothy Janotta, school nutrition director for MSAD 6, which serves five towns in rural York County.

On a recent muggy Thursday, food service workers bustled through the warm kitchen at Buxton Center Elementary School while groups of kids played in the cafeteria and on the playground. They had already served 463 breakfasts across the district and were preparing to pass out 468 lunches to students from the recreation camp, summer academy and anyone else who walked through the door at six different meal sites. The menu for the day included pasta salad, vegetables, fruit and milk.

“Hunger does not take a break in the summer,” Janotta said.

Last summer, the district served nearly 30,000 summer meals. Janotta wants to see that number go up this year.

About 42 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. More than 50 percent of students at two Standish elementary schools qualify. To better reach those students, the district started the summer with six meal sites at schools and a local YMCA, all of which serve both breakfast and lunch. In mid-July, Janotta was able to add a seventh site at a mobile home park in Standish where she knows many of the residents qualify for free or reduced lunch because those kids weren’t able to travel a mile to the closest elementary school.

FOOD SAFETY NET

Sanford schools have been serving summer meals for so long it’s become an expected part of vacation in the city, where 55 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. But that doesn’t stop school nutrition director Holly Hartley from trying to reach more students, regardless of whether their parents struggle to put food on the table.

Last year, Sanford schools served nearly 25,000 meals and Hartley expects to surpass that number this summer.

“There’s an expectation we’re going to be here,” she said. “The kids know where we’re going to be and they take advantage of it.”

After two decades of summer meals, the school staff has service down to a science. At remote sites – parks, the YMCA and a local church – the meals arrive just before lunchtime in a delivery truck, along with the tables and trash cans.

At Carpentier Park, children arrive in pairs or small groups, often accompanied by a parent or grandparent. McKinney, who lives in the neighborhood, walks to the park with her children, 4-year-old Christy McKinney and 3-year-old Matthew Brannen. On a recent Thursday, they picked up trays with individual cheese pizzas, a cup of strawberries and a bag of baby carrots. The kids grabbed cartons of milk from a cooler.

In a shady spot on the edge of the park, McKinney spread a small sheet covered with lions on the ground and tried to settle her kids in for a picnic. But at that moment, they were more interested in playing soccer with the other children who came to the park for lunch.

McKinney, who stays home with the children while her husband works as a delivery driver, watched as they darted back and forth across the park. This was the third time they’d come to the park for lunch after hearing about the program from a Head Start employee, and they plan to come as often as they can.

McKinney said her family relies on two food pantries to help fill her cupboards when her husband’s paychecks don’t stretch far enough. They get a housing voucher that brings their rent down to $681, but they don’t qualify for SNAP. They can’t afford to pay for child care so she can go back to work.

“This will help us a lot,” she said.

After their soccer game and a trip to a corner of the park to water the community garden, Matthew and Christy ran back to their picnic area to guzzle some milk, but were still too interested in playing to eat. Their mother slipped their lunches into zip-lock bags to bring home, relieved the food would be there when they needed it.

 

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