Maine lawmakers will soon decide whether to overturn Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill, An Act to Further Reduce Student Hunger, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. They should vote to override.
The bill is hardly a revolutionary idea.
It would require school districts that have educational or enrichment programs during the summer, and 50 percent or more of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, to provide meals during those summer programs.
If districts wish to, they could work with a community partner — such as a food bank, rotary club or YMCA — to provide the meals. And if districts determine it isn’t economically feasible to feed their students, perhaps because summer programs don’t draw enough students to make breakfast or lunch worth the expense, they don’t have to. The local school board just has to make the decision.
Most school districts have already decided.
Of districts where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 59 provided meals at 209 meal sites during the summer of 2013. (Some districts have multiple locations for food programs.) Plus, six government agencies, such as recreation departments, provided meals at 16 sites; 14 private nonprofits provided meals at 68 sites; and 18 summer camps provided meals at 20 sites, according to the Maine Department of Education.
Thirty-seven districts did not provide summer feeding programs.
The bill would push those districts to figure out whether they can realistically feed students at summer activities, if they haven’t done so already.
But isn’t this bill an unfunded mandate, as LePage asserted in his veto letter?
It’s not. In fact, the funding is already available, and districts are already taking advantage of it. It comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which reimburses districts for the meals they provide.
The reality is school districts serving disadvantaged students don’t need this bill in order to provide meals during the summer. They can make the decision on their own, and many already have. But many have not, and it’s certainly worth it for them to do so. Every teacher knows it’s difficult for students to do well inside and outside the classroom if they’re hungry or don’t have access to nutritious food.
Lawmakers should recognize the legislation for what it truly is. It’s a noncontroversial step. It won’t solve Maine’s poverty problem or even ensure every child who needs a meal gets one. But it will spark local conversations, and it will likely ensure that more districts serve meals at a time when many students need them.
The LePage administration appears misinformed and unkind by rejecting the bill. Lawmakers who do not vote to override will find themselves viewed in the same light.