During the school year, we often talk about the importance of making sure kids get the healthy meals they need to learn and grow. When kids are hungry, they can’t focus on their school work or on the interpersonal skills that classrooms develop. That’s why I’ve focused much of my work in Augusta on making sure Maine students have access to filling, healthy breakfast and lunch. I’m proud to share that we’ve made major progress so that no kids go hungry.

However, the sad reality remains that one in five Maine children deals with food insecurity. Many of these children rely on the meals they get while at school. But what happens in the summer? It can be a real dilemma for families across Maine. Thankfully, there is an answer. The Maine Department of Education has been spreading the word about the Summer Food Service Program, or Hot Lunch Summer, which provides healthy, filling meals for kids during the summer at a variety of locations around our communities. Summertime play is just as formative and important as time spent in school. When kids have the food they need, they also have the energy to run, swim, play and enjoy summer in Maine to its fullest.

To find a hot lunch location near you, go to maine.gov/doe/hotlunchsummer; you can also text “Summer Meals” to 97779 or call 1-866-348-6479. There are locations all over Maine and the midcoast, including the West Bath School and the Bath Area YMCA. Other organizations around Maine have stepped up to help sponsor or fund these meal sites, including the Good Shepherd Food Bank and Full Plates Full Potential. Additionally, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets is working with sponsors to help them source food from local farms, and even schedule farm tours to help kids feel more connected with where their food comes from.

This work dovetails with the efforts we’ve made in the State House to expand and enrich school meals. In 2020, we expanded school meals so that all kids who qualified for free or reduced-priced meals received free meals, which simplified paperwork for families and made sure kids who need the most help get it. On top of this, we also expanded the popular Breakfast after the Bell program. I was also proud to successfully sponsor a bill to launch the Local Produce Fund, which helps school districts purchase fruits and vegetables directly from local Maine farms. This session, we went even further. Free school breakfast and lunch are now available to all students in Maine public schools. No kid should go hungry because their parents just miss income eligibility, or because paperwork was misplaced, or because the kids are too worried about being bullied to get their free meal. And to make sure those meals are healthy as possible, we listened to school districts and expanded the Local Produce Fund to become the Local Foods Fund, allowing schools to purchase a wider variety of food — including meat, fish and dairy products — and work with food distributors they already have a relationship with, on top of buying right from farmers. This is good news for school districts, for kids and for our local food producers.

Ensuring that every child in Maine has access to healthy, filling meals is a moral imperative. We’ve made great strides over the last few years, thanks to partnerships with local organizations and nonprofits, to help families and schools, so that kids have what they need to just enjoy being a kid. If you have any questions about where to find a meal site near you, or how to help nonprofits that address hunger, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected], or by calling my office at 207-287-1515. Together, we can make sure no child goes hungry.

Eloise Vitelli is a state senator serving Sagadahoc County and Dresden.

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