Each year, as tens of thousands of Maine kids return to classrooms statewide, their teachers know that school vacation has left far too many of their pupils struggling to catch up with their studies. These children are exhibiting the effects of a phenomenon known as “summer slide,” resulting from weeks away from the learning environment and individual support their schools provide.

“During summer vacation, many students lose knowledge and skills,” a 2011 report from the Rand Corporation states. “By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring.”

“Most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative,” the report adds. “Over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.”

“The Campaign for Grade Level Reading has a century’s worth of research that this ‘summer slide’ effect really affects all children,” says Michael Dixon, executive director of Portland ConnectEd, a new community coalition seeking to improve early childhood education. “Obviously, there is a disproportionate effect on low-income children, but it affects everyone.”

The Rand report argues for expanding summer learning programs to help bridge the gap in academic achievement school vacation creates. Rand adds that “this is especially true for children from low-income families who might not have access to educational resources throughout the summer months and for low-achieving students who need additional time to master academic content.”

And while Rand acknowledges that cost and shrinking budgets are significant obstacles, the report makes a strong case that summer learning is a wise investment and that community partnerships afford the most effective means to find solutions that protect the overall commitment we make in education.

Another major factor contributing to the “slide” is that too many kids also lose their access over summer break to the nutritious meals available during the school year. According to the Coordinated School Health Programs, an initiative of the Maine Department of Education and Maine Department of Health and Human Services, “Healthy eating patterns are essential for students to achieve their full academic potential, full physical and mental growth, and lifelong health and well-being.”

Maine’s Department of Education reports that more than 46 percent of Maine students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. In more than half of Maine school districts, nutrition program eligibility is over 50 percent. But what happens to these kids when the school year ends?

The national Summer Food Service Program attempts to bridge the gap, reimbursing schools, community centers, churches, local nonprofit groups and other sites that make meals available to eligible kids. However, a Maine Center for Economic Policy analysis found that 84 percent of eligible Maine students did not benefit from the program, mostly because no site provides meals in their community.

This summer, Maine reported significant progress in expanding the summer food program, increasing the number of sites from 242 in 2012 to 307 this year. And for the first time since the program began in 1978, sites were available in all 16 Maine counties. But Maine can and must do more.

LD 1353, An Act to Further Reduce Student Hunger, contains a nonbinding mandate for schools with more than 50 percent school lunch eligibility to provide for summer food service either through the school or in cooperation with nonprofit efforts in the community. Majorities in both houses of the Legislature have voted to support LD 1353, but Gov. Paul LePage has yet to act on it. We urge him to sign it into law. If he does not, it should be a priority for passage in 2014.

Maine’s children are too important for us to yield an inch of progress to a “summer slide.” With foresight, planning, innovation and community involvement, we can devise ways to address both the learning and nutrition needs of Maine kids during the summer months. We must make sure that when Maine kids go back to school they will not have to play catch up and are ready for new challenges and new opportunities.

Ned McCann is executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance. Mark Sullivan is communications director at the Maine Center for Economic Policy.