When news broke of the large amount of student lunch debt in Westbrook’s schools, Mainers did what we do best: step up and take care of each other. An anonymous $10,000 contribution sparked a conversation about the state of childhood hunger in Maine. This conversation is just a glimpse of this deeply complicated issue, and it reminds us that, as a good friend who does this work says all the time: “Ending childhood hunger is complex, but feeding a child is not.”

Childhood hunger is Maine’s most silent crisis. If you are a child struggling with hunger, learning and succeeding is almost impossible, and chronic hunger affects children across our state. Today, 47 percent of all K-12 Maine children qualify for free and reduced-price meals. This means roughly 83,000 Maine children across every ZIP code need breakfast, lunch, after-school and summertime meals.

Realizing that Maine had no plan to end childhood hunger, a group of committed Mainers came together to work on ending childhood hunger across the state. Nonprofits, businesses, academics and governments came together in 2014 to establish the Maine Childhood Hunger Task Force and create a five-year plan. From this task force, a campaign called Full Plates Full Potential was born; today, it’s a nonprofit organization.

The five-year plan analyzed each U.S. Department of Agriculture program that our Maine K-12 schools and nonprofit programs implement. We drilled down to learn participation rates in our breakfast, lunch, after-school and summertime meals programs, what barriers existed and what best practices were being used across the state and around the country to feed more children. Several barriers preventing families and children from accessing these critical programs appeared: the stigma that children and families face when asking for help; inefficient locations of food service; transportation issues, especially during the summer; and more.

A major barrier the task force discovered is the location where meals are served. Most Maine schools still serve breakfast in the school cafeteria. It has never been a great location, proven by the fact that today’s breakfast participation is around 50 percent. This means around 41,500 children who qualify for and need breakfast are not eating. Serving breakfast in the cafeteria stigmatizes the kids in need. The timing of breakfast before school forces many children to choose between playing outside or eating. If anything goes wrong in the morning – like the bus is late or they’re dropped off late – then they often don’t eat breakfast.

Thankfully, there’s a model called “breakfast after the bell” that reduces many of these barriers. Breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go or second-chance breakfast remove many of these obstacles. More importantly, moving breakfast to the classroom almost universally increases participation.

Full Plates Full Potential recently visited a Maine school that made the switch to serving breakfast in the classroom. At Mountain Valley Middle School in Mexico, 87 percent of their 290 students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Even with this staggering need, though, their cafeteria breakfast location was feeding only around 60 kids per day.

Mountain Valley was committed to helping their children and moved their breakfast in the cafeteria location to a grab-and-go model using new breakfast carts stationed right outside the classrooms. Now, children grab their breakfasts on the carts and then eat their meals together in their classroom.

The results are meaningful.

Mountain Valley is now feeding around 190 kids daily with their breakfast carts – meaning that the school will serve an additional 22,750 breakfasts during the full school year. And not surprisingly, the school is seeing incredible impacts, too – better concentration and learning, fewer nurse visits and discipline issues and less family anxiety. To top it off, Mountain Valley’s federal reimbursements will increase by $39,812.

Full Plates Full Potential helped Mountain Valley change their breakfast model through a breakfast grant of $3,150. This grant helped them purchase two efficient breakfast carts. Their new carts provide breakfast just outside of their classrooms, display the breakfast options better and now Mountain Valley can provide hot and cold breakfast choices.

We know that ending childhood hunger is complex. That said, Full Plates Full Potential and our amazing partners are ready to work with any community to feed more kids. We hope more schools will change to a “breakfast after the bell” model and reduce every barrier that children face accessing food. We need to raise community awareness about the realities of child hunger as we saw happened in Westbrook after the amazing donation. We ask for you to join us as we continue working to end childhood hunger.