Currently across the state, 80,000 Maine kids rely on school breakfast, lunch and after school meals for their basic food needs. Credit: George Danby

Every day, tens of thousands of Maine children enter schools to learn, grow and thrive. To perform their best in school, they need good nutrition.

Currently across the state, 80,000 Maine kids — that’s 43 percent — rely on school breakfast, lunch and after school meals for their basic food needs. Unfortunately, many of these students are faced with barriers to accessing the school meals that they so desperately need and in a lot of cases, kids leave school with lunch being their last meal of the day.

That’s simply not OK.

How can we expect our students to be ready to learn when they are hungry? How do we expect teachers to have impact in their classrooms when children are complaining of stomach pains or are acting up in class?

School meal programs and classroom performance are interlinked. There’s ample research that shows schools that value and prioritize their school meal programs see better academic results, a decrease in school absenteeism and a reduction in student behavior issues as well. These positive outcomes showcase that once a school commits to increasing student access to food every day, tangible changes will follow.

Why is this so important? For many Maine students, school meals are often the only reliable source of nutrition in their day, but barriers like access and stigma mean that thousands of eligible kids are not eating the nutritious school meals provided at breakfast, lunch, after school and during the summer — too many kids are falling through the cracks.

Although school nutrition directors and staff work hard to feed students every day, they need more support and resources to increase their reach and impact. The reality is that we need to support schools so that they can prioritize a culture that does everything possible to feed kids.

Again, 80,000 kids in Maine rely on school meals every day.

Oakhurst has decided to focus its charitable giving on child hunger because we believe it’s imperative to create more environments that allow our kids to be healthy and active. And, one way to do that is to ensure that more children have access to more basic meals at school. We also wanted to find a partner to work alongside. Throughout our long history as a company in Maine, when we want to tackle big community issues we look for partners with deep knowledge and expertise, whose work is making an impact, has tangible results and who have strong relationships with others across the community working on that issue.

We are excited to announce such a partnership with Full Plates Full Potential and the Maine Department of Education. Our new initiative, The Oakhurst After School meal grant program, is a three-year $300,000 investment in Maine’s most underutilized school meal program — after school meals.

After school meals are currently being served in only 40 schools out of 242 eligible ones in our state, according to the Maine Department of Education. This means that only about 16 percent of eligible students are getting a nutritious meal before they go home. With the need identified, the Oakhurst leadership team recognized a new funding source to help establish sustainable after school meal programs in more schools was urgently needed.

This Oakhurst After School meal grant program is an innovative public-private partnership designed to do just that. It will greatly expand the existing impressive work that Full Plates Full Potential and Maine Department of Education have accomplished — so far they’ve helped 12 schools and nonprofits establish sustainable after school meal programs. Our Oakhurst commitment will grow and scale the program in eligible schools and nonprofits, while helping pay for critical start-up costs including equipment, marketing, enrichment staffing, and training.

Additionally, Oakhurst knows that school nutrition directors and other child hunger heroes want and need public awareness about the child hunger crisis happening in our state. We are excited to be launching a statewide campaign to ensure that every community engages in solutions to feed their kids.

We know that feeding 80,000 kids daily is a winnable goal and we aim to support our schools, towns, and communities in achieving this. We believe giving goodness is a team effort and that a public private partnership like Oakhurst After School is the way to go. Together, let’s take the necessary steps to end child hunger in Maine.

John Bennett is the CEO of Oakhurst Dairy.