A toddler gets one-on-one attention from assistant teacher Heather Sieger in the Chickadee Room at the Cornerspring Montessori School in Belfast on Tuesday morning. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

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Troy Jackson of Allagash is president of the Maine Senate. Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford is speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

Like most Mainers, our parents worked hard to make ends meet, pay rent and put food on the table. But there were times when things were tough. While we always managed to scrape by, the threat of food insecurity was real, and our experience isn’t unique.

Maine should be a place where all kids can thrive no matter where they live or how much their parents make. Yet, too many Maine children don’t get what they need to lead healthy, happy and productive lives.

As we rebuild our state after a devastating pandemic, we need to put our kids first. That starts with the Kids First plan. Our proposal feeds our kids, increases access to quality, affordable child care and supports the extraordinary child care workers in this state.

Kids can’t learn if they show up to school hungry. Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity among children in New England; one in six children lack access to basic nutrition. Before the pandemic, 43 percent, or around 80,000 students were eligible for free school meals. That number is only expected to grow. On top of those eligible for free and reduced lunch, there are also the kids who just barely miss the eligibility guidelines that go to school hungry.

No child should ever have to worry about where their next meal will come from. That’s why we’ve introduced LD 1679, “An Act To Address Student Hunger through Expanding Access to Free School Meals.” This will ensure any Maine child who goes to school can access a free, nutritious school meal — no questions asked. Throughout the pandemic, school nutrition directors, teachers, volunteers and advocates have found creative ways to feed our kids. Let’s not stop now.

The Maine Senate and House overwhelmingly passed LD 1769 last week. However, addressing child hunger is only part one.

Maine parents have long struggled to find quality, affordable child care. More than one in five Maine children live in what’s considered a “child care desert.” This means that for every three kids in need of child care, there’s only one available slot. It’s worse in rural areas. Seventy percent of all Maine children under the age of six live in families with all available parents in the workforce, and are likely in need of child care. This puts Maine families in an impossible situation.

Child care workers are also facing enormous challenges, and last year was especially tough. In a survey, two-thirds of Maine child care providers said they did not get enough financial relief to make ends meet. Reports also show that there were 21 fewer child care centers and 65 fewer family child care programs than the previous year.

It’s clear access to affordable, quality child care is vital to our kids, parents and our economy. It’s also made clear that child care workers deserve our support. It’s why we’ve introduced two bills to make our child care system work better for everyone.

LD 1712, An Act To Support Children’s Healthy Development and School Success, would expand access to quality, affordable child care by investing in child care providers and working with community stakeholders to open slots in existing child care programs through the First4ME program. It recognizes the good work that is already happening in different communities by investing in providers and organizations to help them open up child care slots, invest in providers, support parents and improve quality. It’s based on a successful program out of Somerset County with a track record of success, and not a one-size fits all model.

LD 1652, An Act to Build a Child Care System by Recruiting and Retaining Maine’s Early Childhood Educators Workforce, aims to address Maine’s child care workforce crisis to help this critical sector be on a path to long-term growth and stability. Early child care providers serve our state as the “workforce behind Maine’s workforce” and must be able to make ends meet. They deserve to be compensated and have access to training and career advancement like any educator.

Throughout this pandemic, parents and leaders have expressed concern about the well-being of our kids, and rightfully so. The Kids First plan lays out a framework to ensure Maine kids can get what they need to be successful in school and in life. Now, it’s time for Maine lawmakers to match our words with action by passing and funding LD 1679, 1712 and 1652. Let’s not waste any more time; let’s put Maine kids first.