“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela

NORTH YARMOUTH — Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity out of all of the New England and mid-Atlantic states. Twenty percent of Maine kids live in poverty, and 208,000 Mainers live with food insecurity.

It is shocking to me because when growing up in southern Maine I had no idea about the existing hunger crisis. When presented with the facts and after listening to stories, I felt my education had failed me. Why are we not talking about this? It’s as if not talking about a problem equates to “it’s not really happening.”

It is easy to remain unaware of the hunger problem that exists in Maine. If one does not look for it or talk about it, then the conversation can be evaded, or even worse, the problem can be denied. Ignorance is not bliss – it is harmful.

Last week in Westbrook, Joel Berg, the CEO of Hunger Free America and a nationally recognized leader and anti-hunger advocate, delivered a message that must be used to spark this conversation in Maine.

“To be schooled, you must be well fueled. To be well read, you must be well fed,” Berg said July 18 at Westbrook Pointe, a subsidized housing development run by Spear Management Group Inc. that hosts a summer meals site through the Summer Food Service Program.

Public-private collaboration ensures the implementation and success of the Summer Food Service Program, said Berg, citing partnerships between the federal government and nonprofit groups, such as those between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Preble Street, the Westbrook School Department and Spear Management.

Programs around the state are continually threatened with losing funding, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federally funded program administered at the state level that provides food stamps to eligible citizens. Just last month, Gov. LePage said Maine would pull out of SNAP unless the state is allowed to ban the use of food stamps to buy soda and candy.

Nearly one out of seven Mainers rely on SNAP benefits. That’s almost 200,000 people, or approximately the combined population of Maine’s six largest communities: Portland, Lewiston, Bangor, South Portland, Auburn and Biddeford.

The Summer Food Service Program is also a federally funded USDA program that serves as an extension of the National School Lunch Program. Each meal served is fully reimbursed by the federal government.

I have been working at various summer meal sites around Portland, and parents at the sites have shared with me the challenges of feeding their kids during the summer months. One mother was between SNAP benefits when she first came to the summer meal site with her children. They’ve been back almost every day since.

Most Summer Food Service Program sites are “open sites,” which means they are open to the community and any child under 18 is welcome to a free meal. I have met children, sometimes as young as 10, who take care of their younger siblings during the day while their parents are at work. A summer meals site in their community provides a much-needed nutritious meal that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Berg emphasized to me that combating hunger is something that can unite us all and that our country is stronger because our tax dollars go to help feed our neighbors. “Our national motto is ‘Ending Hunger Lifts Us All.’ It lifts us all spiritually, it lifts us all economically, and it’s about time the entire country, starting with Maine, finally ends hunger,” he said.

The reality is that too many of our neighbors face hunger, and we may not even know it because of the stigma that surrounds this issue. It’s time we talk about it. It’s time to support federal assistance programs like SNAP and recognize that because it’s an entitlement program, anyone who is eligible will receive benefits, and rightfully so.

“As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” they say, and so in this political climate, it is important to remember that our ability to unite behind a cause as important as ending hunger, and feeding our children should supersede any political affiliation. Sustainable, systemic solutions to end hunger do exist, and with public-private partnerships, they are available.

Maine children are our future. As a society, we must treat our children better.