Childhood hunger is unacceptable. But for years, it has been one of the state’s biggest crises with few gains and no sense of urgency.

Today, nearly half of school-aged kids qualify for meal assistance in every corner of our state. This devastating statistic is shocking. Even more unbelievable is that a lot of these eligible students do not participate in their school’s daily breakfast, lunch and after-school meal programs during the year – nor do they access summer food programs.

Barriers in our schools, outdated food service models and the stigma kids face are the biggest reasons why so many children cannot access nutritious food.

Recognizing the urgent need of this crisis, the legislature passed and the Governor signed the most significant package of childhood hunger bills in our state’s history.

Here’s what these new changes mean for Maine students:

For breakfast, schools will change their models to the national best practice known as Breakfast After the Bell. Now schools will serve breakfast after the first bell of the school day in the classroom or on a cart just outside of the classroom. This best practice will increase participation and reduce the stigma for eligible children. The new law also includes funds to pay for infrastructure like food carts and point of sale systems to ease the burden on local school districts.

For lunch, students who qualify for reduced price lunch will now eat for free. For these 11,000 students, often the reduced cost of lunch can be too much for families to afford, causing children to accumulate lunch debt. Eliminating the reduced-price category ensures that these students caught in the middle can access nutritious school lunches while reducing the administrative burden on school nutrition directors.

The state will now create an online application for federal child nutrition food programs. Today 81,838 students are enrolled in federal food programs for free and reduced-price school meals. There are many more children, however, who qualify for these programs but don’t enroll because their families never turn in their paper applications. Because of this law, the state will provide an online application system, in addition to the paper form, that local school districts can use to make it easier for parents to apply.

After-school programs, from sports to school clubs, are a hallmark of many students’ educational experiences. Most students arrive at after-school programs hours after they’ve eaten lunch. This new law will give children the opportunity to eat nutritious meals with their peers so that they can learn, focus and complete after-school activities. Currently, only 28 of the 271 schools eligible actually participate in this federal food program.

These four childhood hunger laws will allow more Maine kids to grow up healthy and will give them the opportunity to reach their full potential by removing significant barriers to food access they face in school.

These laws will also leverage federal dollars that will pay for more nutritious food, help cover the cost of staff and help our economy. During the 2017-2018 school year, our low participation rates in the federal child nutrition programs meant over $57 million of reimbursements did not flow back to our local school districts to feed eligible children. These bills will close this gap in significant ways.

A huge thank you goes out to Gov. Mills for prioritizing the basic needs of children and to the sponsors of our bills: Sen. Cathy Breen, Sen.  Moore, Sen. Shenna Bellows and Rep. Michael Brennan.

And now comes the hardest part: implementing these laws so schools are successful and more kids participate. Full Plates Full Potential and our partners are already changing gears to plan and prepare for scaling these best practices statewide.

Together, we can end child hunger in Maine, and these new laws give us an incredible opportunity to do just that.

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