AUGUSTA – Maine lawmakers, officials and advocates began to wrestle Monday with how to provide more students with access to free or affordably-priced meals, which they say is vital to helping low-income children succeed in school.

More than 83,000 Maine students qualify for free-or-reduced-price meals, but the federally-funded programs are underutilized by both schools and students, said Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland. Alfond is co-chairing the task force responsible for developing a multi-year plan to boost participation in the programs and reduce student hunger by working with school administrators and the private sector.

“If you talk to some of our largest banks … some of our largest institutions, they are already fighting hunger through charities in big, big ways, so they are very interested in how they can be more effective with their charitable dollars,” he said.

The Maine Hunger Initiative, a program of the Preble Street advocacy organization in Portland, estimates that 52 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced price meals in Maine actually participate in school breakfast programs.

Meanwhile, just 18 percent of those students are getting meals they could receive in the summer at churches, playgrounds or other locations that host one of the state’s 337 meal sites, according to the group.

Gail Lombardi, who heads the Summer Food Service Program with the Maine Department of Education, told the panel that transportation for students continues to be a challenge in the summer – especially in rural northern Maine where many take the bus during the school year.

Michelle Lamm, program director with the Maine Hunger Initiative, also pointed to the stigma that low-income students may feel that discourages them from receiving their free-or-reduced-price meals. Meanwhile, many times school breakfast is only offered until a certain time and students won’t have time to get it if they take the bus, she said.

The task force is expected to submit a report detailing its recommendations, including possible legislation, by December.

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