Maine Senate President Justin Alfond is once again squaring off with Governor LePage, this time over a bill to help feed low income kids during the summer school vacation.
Maine continues to have one of the highest rates of childhood hunger in the nation with 1 out of 5 kids under the age of 18 considered food insecure. Alfond is working to change that but he’s now facing an uphill climb.
84,000 Maine children qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, but only 14,000 have access to a summer food program. Last session, Alfond proposed a bill, LD 1353, “An Act To Further Reduce Student Hunger” that garnered 101 votes in the House and the Senate voted 25-7 to pass the measure in July.
Under his plan, any community where the majority of students are on free and reduced lunch programs, that also offer summer programs for kids, would work toward starting a Summer Food Service Program.
According to the USDA website, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was established to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. Free meals, that meet Federal nutrition guidelines, are provided to all children 18 years old and under at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children. Schools, churches, and civic organizations are all eligible to serve as sponsors for the SFSP that leverages federal dollars to help pay for the food.
“We’re talking about 70,000 students across the state that don’t get fed and that is what this bill is about,” Alfond said.
The bill passed both the house and senate convincingly, but did not survive the veto pen of Governor Paul LePage who called the bill an “irresponsible unfunded mandate directing the schools to provide a program without providing the funding.”
Alfond took exception with the governor’s comments saying schools have the opportunity to opt out of the program if they can’t find a sponsor or they find the cost too much.
“There is local control every step of the way for communities to decide whether a summer food program is right for them or not,” Alfond said.
LePage called the opt out clause a “gimmick,” adding that he’s deeply concerned about poor students but he says current law already allows those communities to opt-in to a school lunch program.
Alfond argues current laws are not doing enough to combat the problem.
“When this bill was brought up in the first session we were the seventh most food insecure state in the country. Now we’re the third highest in the whole country. That means four states have done a better job than us and we’re the third highest in the whole country so the urgency is now.”
Alfond will need two-thirds of the house and senate to agree with him in order to override the governor’s veto. The matter could be taken up by lawmakers as soon as next week.