A new report on child hunger in Maine says the state should do more to raise awareness of free lunch programs to the 20,000 Maine children who qualify but don’t take advantage of them, and provide more resources to help hungry students.

“After months of working with experts – those people who are out in the field working day in and day out on ending childhood hunger – the Task Force to End Student Hunger presented our plan to solve childhood hunger in Maine within five years,” state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said in his weekend radio address.

“It’s an ambitious goal but it’s one that we think we can achieve,” said Alfond, who co-chaired the task force that produced the report and has introduced legislation to fight child hunger in the state.

More than 86,000 students in Maine go hungry every day, the report found, and many who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school don’t sign up because of embarrassment or because they don’t want to give up non-classroom time to get and eat the food, researchers found.

The report, released Thursday, recommends passage of two bills – yet to be written – that would increase state funding to local schools for nutrition costs; require the state education and health departments to provide more child hunger data and to meet quarterly on the issue; and create a working group to focus on increasing participation in free meal programs.

Providing free or affordable meals in school is closely tied to helping low-income children succeed. Studies have shown that hungry children have lower attendance rates, lower test scores and more discipline problems, the report said.

The report found that when Lincoln Middle School in Portland instituted a free breakfast program for all students, there was a sharp drop in students acting up, visits to the school nurse dropped, and students’ grades improved.

Currently, only 40 percent of eligible students in Maine take advantage of school breakfast programs and 61 percent take advantage of free or reduced-price lunches at school. Also, just 12 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 report.

Because of federal funding for those programs, underenrollment in the free or reduced lunch program means Maine is missing out in $48 million in USDA food nutrition funding available to the state, according to Ron Adams, the legislative chairman of Maine School Nutrition Association and the food director in the Portland public schools.

The task force goals include 100 percent participation in school-based breakfast and lunch programs within five years, and having a summer meal site in every eligible school district within five years.

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