Friday, March 7, 2014
By William M. Barter
PORTLAND — I am writing to address Gov. LePage’s recent veto of L.D. 1353, An Act to Further Reduce Student Hunger.
The Rev. Dr. William M. Barter is executive director of the Maine Council of Churches in Portland.
L.D. 1353 would have required the operation of a summer food program by any public school where at least half of students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch during the preceding school year and where academic or recreational summer programming for children is scheduled.
In Maine, more than half of our public schools have at least 50 percent qualifying students. One in seven schools has 70 percent or higher eligibility rates, including a few that reach 100 percent. Through U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursement, the cost of the program would have been borne by the federal government.
We all do what we can to help in the moment, but the Maine Council of Churches has always worked on what we call “upstream ministry.” The legislation passed by the Maine Legislature and then vetoed by the governor is about doing upstream work that is preventative. We believe that the veto of the bill is shortsighted and should be overridden.
Christians believe that Jesus had a fundamental bias in favor of the poor. Nowhere in the Christian Scriptures is this bias more apparent than the connection between hunger and poverty and the direct link between feeding the hungry and following the teachings of Jesus.
As an example, we read in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”
In the second chapter of the Epistle of St. James, we read: “If a brother or sister lacks food and one of you says, ‘Go in peace,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? Faith if it has no works is dead.”
In these passages, as in others, addressing bodily hunger and thirst is equated with the mandate to lift up the poor and disadvantaged.
The physiological and psychological impact of hunger and food insecurity in children is well documented. Numerous recent long-term studies by the National Institutes of Health show overwhelming evidence that hunger and food insecurity can lead to low test scores, poor scholastic performance, anxiety, depression, aggression and a lowered immune response to disease.
Hungry kids are statistically high users of the mental health system, at great cost to these children and to our society. As a minister who is also licensed as a doctoral psychologist in Maine, I can attest to the truth of these statistics.
In Maine, thousands of schoolchildren stay healthy and nourished through the school year in part because of the successful national school lunch program. When summer comes, these low-income, often working, families struggle to provide those extra meals to their children each week. This is where we often see them turn to our churches for help.
Having more accessible summer food service program sites, funded by available federal monies, makes sense at these schools that qualify and where summer schools or recreational camps are being held. This legislation ensures that these children will have a nourishing meal and that their parents won’t have to rely upon overburdened food pantries to try to make up the difference.
Many of our member churches are already engaged in feeding programs for hungry children. We stand poised to partner with the state and federal governments to act as reliable, accessible distribution points for nutritious meals in the summer, a time when school lunch programs would not otherwise be accessible to hungry kids.
The Maine Legislature did the right thing for Maine’s hungry children; it passed L.D. 1353 last July. We were greatly disappointed that Gov. LePage vetoed the bill this month.
When it really counts, the Legislature has overridden vetoes by the governor. For example, there was an overwhelming override of LePage’s veto of a bill that requires MaineCare to fund smoking cessation.
This override – and others like it – shows that we have a Legislature that is looking beyond the present moment and making investments in the health and well-being of Mainers for a long time to come.
L.D. 1353 is another fine example of a bill with a long-term health benefit for children and families. If the Legislature wants to be proactive with regard to children’s health and well-being, it will once again do the right thing and override the governor’s veto of L.D. 1353.
— Special to the Press Herald