Young students go hungry in Maine, and that’s not even the worst of it.

While solutions to the problems created by poverty and near-poverty are often frustratingly elusive, an answer to student hunger is already in place. It’s just that the state is not taking full advantage of it.

A report issued last week by a legislative task force contains good ideas for changing that.

But it also makes clear that the responsibility for making sure all students are fed and ready to learn ultimately falls onto the school districts themselves.

COMMISSION CAN HELP SCHOOLS

The task force’s report sets out a series of recommendations, starting with the creation of a commission to help schools and communities use the various federally funded school nutrition programs. Within five years, the report says, Maine schools should drastically increase the number of meals that they give out at lunch and breakfast, as well as after school and in the summer.

That goal is entirely within reach. There are proven methods for reaching more kids, and the commission can help adapt those methods to school districts throughout the state.

But it is the schools that run the meal programs, and it is the schools that have to be convinced that the programs need more attention.

That starts with an understanding of the scope of the problem. More than 86,000 students in Maine go hungry every day, the report found.

For some, that means only getting the same, low-quality foods meal after meal, with an occasional breakfast or dinner missed altogether.

For others, it means there isn’t enough food to have even those low-quality meals on a regular basis.

For most, it means living in households where the stress of keeping something in the cupboards while paying all the other bills is constantly present.

It also means a lot of students go to school without the food they need to fuel their day.

As a result, they have trouble paying attention, completing assignments and retaining information. They are also more prone to anxiety and behavioral problems.

UNDERUSED meal prograMS

For these kids, the school meal programs are there to fill the gap. But for a number of reasons not related to need, students are not using the programs.

In Maine, only 61 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch are participating. That number drops to 40 percent for breakfast programs, and to only 12 percent for summer meals programs.

The school systems that beat those averages are creative and proactive, and dedicated to serving more meals.

In Skowhegan, school officials reached out to families to make sure the proper forms were completed, and they used programs like the community eligibility provision to provide free meals to all students, erasing the stigma connected to the free-meals program.

Lake Region Middle School in Naples offers meals at different times of the day, and allows students to take food on-the-go, so students can eat when they are hungry, and when they are not tied up in other activities.

In Bangor, the schools partner with community groups and the Good Shepherd Food Bank to offer programs during summer vacation, so that poor students don’t go hungry when school is not in session.

And in Portland, they serve local foods to give students a variety of choices and spark interest in new offerings.

In each of those cases, the schools were able to get more students the nutrition they need, while using few local or state dollars.

A state commission can help hold up those successes as models for the rest of the state.

And the way the task force suggests doing that – by working intensely, to start, with a few underparticipating schools, before moving on to others – is smart.

But school districts, too, have to fully embrace these initiatives to truly make a dent in student hunger.