A school lunch consisting of a quesadilla was served at Bangor High School in this September 2014 file photo as part of a legislative task force presentation to end school hunger. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

One in five Maine children live in food-insecure households, and Maine is in the top 10 states for food insecurity nationwide. These are startling facts that deliver a grim message: Too many people in Maine struggle with hunger.

Having served on the Maine Principals’ Association executive board, I am fully aware of children and families facing these challenges. When I served as a pastor, we did what we could to help those struggling with food insecurity, but we sure could have used an additional helping hand. Matthew 25:34-40 tells us when we feed others, we are feeding Christ. In other words, feeding the hungry is both a moral duty and a spiritual exercise.

The Maine Legislature is considering funding for several pieces of legislation that have passed with broad bipartisan support, all aimed at reducing hunger. The Christian Civic League of Maine supports funding LD 701 and LD 359, and passing LD 577, which would expand participation in federal school nutrition programs. If Maine implemented these laws, we would draw down nearly $56 million of new federal funds, with a value of $1,443.70 for every participating child. The only ongoing state cost would be $150,000 for an online school meals application.

LD 701, “An Act to Modernize the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program,” would establish an online application which would greatly increase participation in our school nutrition programs. In the current process, a student has to carry home a paper form, then return the signed form to school, and the school nutrition director needs to type all the data into the system to see if the child qualifies for the program. By the time all of this is done, we have wasted time and money. An online application would create a seamless, low-barrier way for parents to apply for the program. The paper option would still be offered for families who lack access to the internet.

LD 359, “An Act to Address Student Hunger with a Breakfast after the Bell Program,” would greatly increase the number of kids who benefit from the School Breakfast Program. Currently, Maine’s National School Breakfast Program only reaches about 40 percent of eligible children. This legislation would increase that number substantially, and it requires only a one-time appropriation to offset the costs of small grants to our schools to allow them to purchase breakfast carts, coolers and other materials so they can make the food more easily available to the students.

LD 577, “An Act to Increase Access to Nutritious Foods in Schools by Implementing an After-school Food Program for At-risk Students,” promotes an existing federal after-school meal program for eligible schools. This program provides healthy, nutritious food to kids who may not get an evening meal at home.

Finally, the Christian Civic League of Maine also supports LD 786, “An Act To Reduce Hunger and Promote Maine Agriculture.” This legislation would continue funding for Mainers Feeding Mainers, which partners Maine’s hard-working farmers with local organizations such as food pantries and schools to provide healthy, nutritious food. This helps our rural farming economy and our families who are struggling with hunger.

The facts are simple. Hunger adversely affects both the physical and mental development of a child. Hungry kids cannot concentrate at school and perform to their best ability. Hungry kids do not get the nutrition they need, and as a state, we are failing our children if we cannot guarantee them access to nutritious food.

More than 50,000 Maine children are growing up in a state where they are facing hunger. According to the Maine Farmland Trust, more than 200,000 Mainers are food-insecure. Maine farmers have been successfully partnering with local groups and schools to provide healthy, nutritious food through school nutrition programs and Mainers Feeding Mainers.

These programs are proven solutions to hunger that require a modest public investment to ensure our private partners’ success. On behalf of the Christian Civic League of Maine, I urge the Maine Legislature to pass these pieces of legislation to ensure our children and their parents receive the best possible opportunity for lifetime success.

Carroll Conley is executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.