Credit: George Danby

When I was the mayor of Calais, I saw the power of a school breakfast program at work — how much more willing children are to sit still and learn when they’re starting the day with a full stomach.

Now, as the senator for Washington County — one of the most rural and poorest counties in Maine — I’m all too aware of how many of our state’s most vulnerable kids are showing up to school hungry.

March 4-8 is National School Breakfast Week. For too many children living in Maine, eating breakfast isn’t a reality. Roughly 192,000 of our neighbors struggle with hunger — far higher than the national average. One in five Maine children live in a food insecure home.

To increase the number of students eating school breakfast, anti-hunger organizations like Preble Street have been working with schools to adopt new breakfast services models that increase participation by expanding breakfast time and reducing stigma. It doesn’t matter how good a teacher’s lesson plans are; if children come to class hungry, they are far less likely to listen, and engage with the material and their peers. They’re already a step behind, and the bell’s just rung.

Nearly half of Maine kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals, including breakfast. But only 60 percent of the students who participate in free and reduced-price lunch programs also participate in school breakfast. That’s because they rely on adults, school bus schedules and carpools to get them to school on time. Once at school, students have to worry about whether they have enough time to go to the cafeteria, get a tray, eat breakfast and get to their first class on time. There’s also a great deal of social pressure and stigma that comes from being singled out as a child that ‘needs’ school breakfast.This is just a small window into the things that keep too many of our students from getting the breakfast they need to start their school day.

Here’s what we can do to put a stop to this: offer breakfast after the bell, where it has the best chance of reaching the students who need it most. When breakfast is offered during the school day, all students have an opportunity to eat together, so no student is singled out. I have seen firsthand the success of breakfast after the bell programs, and what it can do for so many more students across our state. That’s why I’ve introduced “ Breakfast After the Bell” legislation to get it done.

Students who eat breakfast at school have better attendance records, improved test scores, higher graduation rates and higher earning potential as adults. School breakfast means better concentration, alertness, memory and comprehension.

One Maine food service director who implemented breakfast after the bell in her school said the teachers, while initially resistant to food in the classroom, quickly came around when they saw how much more focused the kids were, how they were calmer and ready to learn. This “Breakfast After the Bell” bill would give each school the choice to implement the program that’s right for them – whether it be a grab-and-go cart, a second chance breakfast or breakfast in the classroom.

We know this is good for students. It’s also good for Maine’s bottom line. The federal government reimburses our schools for each breakfast they serve to students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. This means that the more meals served, the more federal dollars come to our schools and state. If implemented, this bill could bring hundreds of thousands more dollars annually into the budgets of local schools.

Here’s how you can help make “Breakfast After the Bell” a reality: contact your state legislators and tell them you want LD 359 passed so that every Maine child can start the school day with a full belly, ready to learn.

Sen. Marianne Moore represents Maine Senate District 6, serving all of Washington County as well as Gouldsboro, Sullivan, and Winter Harbor in Hancock County.