Use of Maine’s after-school meals program, designed to help students who aren’t getting enough of the food they need at home, rose 89% between 2018 and 2019, according to a new report from the Food Research and Action Center.

The increase does not appear to reflect an increase in need, but the impact of a new law mandating Maine’s poorest school districts offer after-school meals.

In other words, the need was always there – the kids were hungry and struggling to get the nutrition they need, waiting for help, when the programs started.

Hunger is getting worse now as Congress and President Trump have failed for months to provide relief for the toll the pandemic has taken and continues to take on people’s lives.

But the report on after-school meals shows hunger is a problem even in the best of times. Before COVID, when the economy was booming and unemployment was reaching all-time lows, millions of Americans still could not put food on the table. While the richest Americans saw their wealth soar, so many others were beset by persistent low wages and the high cost of food, housing, health care and child care, none of which could be offset by insufficient federal aid programs.

In Maine, 13.6 percent of households could not put enough food on the table in 2018, worst in New England and 12th worst in the U.S. About 1 in every 5 Maine children comes from a household struggling with hunger.

Those households that qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP, formerly known as food stamps – get a little help, but it is not enough to get through the month.

More than a third don’t qualify, however, and many would not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school, either.

And so, because Maine’s law mandating after-school meals programs only applies to communities in which 50 percent or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch – which brings federal funding – it misses a lot of hungry students. Even in the state’s richest communities, there are families struggling to get enough food.

We can do more to stop hunger. We have to do more.

One way is through the continued expansion of the school meals program. School lunch feeds millions of kids every day, and breakfast is proving to be just as necessary. After-school snack and meal programs are the next logical step, but they need help to get going.

According to FRAC, more than 1.4 million students participated in the after-school program on an average day in 2019, up 86,000 from the year before.

But that’s only 6.5 percent of those in the school lunch program. In Maine, where the new law just took effect, 1,077 students used the program, compared to nearly 60,000 for lunch, the 45th worst ratio in the country.

Congress could lower the threshold for federally funded after-school programs to include schools where as low as 40 percent of students are low income, or they could eliminate the threshold all together and fund the program for all schools that want it.

The FRAC report also suggests all the school meal programs be combined into one to streamline the process and make it easier for schools.

We know there are hungry kids out there, in every corner of every state, waiting for help. We know how we can help them. Let’s do it.

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