Add yet another group to Gov. Paul LePage’s war on the poor: hungry kids.

Sometime in the next few days, the Legislature will find itself staring once again at “An Act To Further Reduce Student Hunger” – a no-brainer piece of legislation passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate last spring only to fall victim to LePage’s veto pen last month.

No surprise there: If it starts with poverty and ends with federal funds, you can bet your last silver half-dollar that the Big Guy’s going to have a problem with it.

But this veto, one of a record 187 by LePage during the current legislative biennium, is more than just a knee-jerk “nay” to the Legislature’s chorus of “ayes.”

This one, since we’re on the topic of food here, is just plain nuts.

Sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the bill, L.D. 1353, is in essence a conversation starter for school districts across Maine where at least 50 percent of the students qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunches.

“During the school year, there are approximately 84,000 students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch,” Alfond said in an interview this week. “And during the summertime, only 14,000 of those students actually have access to a summer food program … it’s a massive drop-off.”

Which raises an obvious question: What happens to those other 70,000 kids?

Growling stomachs, that’s what.

Worse yet, the money is there, right now, to feed every last one of them. If a school district receives free and reduced-price lunches though the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, it automatically qualifies for the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program.

Qualifying Maine communities can opt into the summer program, although few do. Of the $11 million in federal food subsidies that Maine communities could use to feed hungry kids from late June to Labor Day, only about $1 million now finds its way here.

In fact, according to a 2011 “Hunger in Maine” report by the Preble Street social service agency in Portland, four Maine counties (Franklin, Hancock, Knox and Lincoln) have no sites for feeding children in the summer.

Alfond’s bill would give school districts two choices: Join the summer food program and start giving your kids the same access to food that they have during the school year, or simply vote to “opt out” if the district concludes “that operating such a program would be financially or logistically impossible.”

Now honestly, how hard is that? Simply say “yes” and start feeding those hungry young mouths or, if the logistics prove too daunting, simply say “no” and let those kids and their cash-strapped parents go on fending for themselves.

Alfond said he actually met with LePage and then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen last spring and “talked (LePage) through this bill. And he had no concerns.”

Then, fresh from the holidays, LePage took another look at the legislation and started seeing things that aren’t there. (Perhaps it was something he ate?)

“This bill presents an irresponsible unfunded mandate,” LePage groused in his veto letter on Jan. 10.

Let’s chew on that one that for a minute: For starters, it’s not mandatory. And the food itself is fully reimbursed by the federal government at $3.25 per meal.

Moreover, before LePage starts worrying about hidden impacts on municipal or school budgets (this from a guy who’s fought for more than a year to slash state-local revenue sharing), he’d do well to consult Donna Yellen.

As Preble Street’s chief program officer, Yellen could explain to him how 49 Maine communities have managed to launch summer food programs over the past three years through the Maine Hunger Initiative.

Yellen said this week that the typical response when a community learns of the summer-hunger problem (and the readily available solution) is to rally together and get food to the kids, not by paying the school cafeteria staff to work all summer, but through any number of volunteer efforts.

“The summer meals program isn’t rocket science – it just takes some elbow grease,” said Yellen. “It’s really like the old-fashioned barn-raising. We get church volunteers to come in and serve one day, local stores come in and serve another day, an Elks Club or some other facility might host it …”

And if none of that pans out, there’s always that opt-out. Right?

Back to LePage, who called the opt-out “merely a gimmick.”

“Although the bill contains an opt-out program,” he wrote, “the school administration may only opt out after such a requirement has been imposed.”

(Note to LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett: The Big Guy’s babbling again. Quick, toss him a Snickers bar.)

Alfond said LePage’s veto will come up for an override vote in the next few days. His hope is that the bipartisan, veto-proof majorities that passed the bill in each chamber will hold despite pressure from the Blaine House in an election year.

“I’m reaching out to Democrats and independents and Republicans who have really high free- and reduced-price lunch districts,” Alfond said. “The conversations are going really well.”

(As a fig leaf for Republicans, Alfond removed from the bill a provision that would have forced school districts to notify parents if they opted out of the summer program and explain the reasoning for that decision.)

Alfond is still puzzled that LePage, who has long claimed to know a thing or two about childhood hunger, “chose such a straightforward, very, very good piece of legislation” to go to war over.

“My reaction is that I don’t think he understands the bill,” Alfond said. “I think he’s created this tunnel vision that … we don’t want to rely on the federal government. And I just don’t believe this governor has put up many solutions to actually deal with poverty in his three-plus years.”

Over at Preble Street, Yellen wonders if there’s more to Le-Page’s pushback than a simple lack of understanding. While LePage claimed in his veto letter that he has “a deep concern about our poor students and communities,” she finds his unwillingness to help make their lives a little more bearable just plain “crazy.”

“Does it come down to fear of change? I don’t know,” Yellen said. “We’re more afraid of kids not getting fed.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]