by Jessica Piper
BRUNSWICK — On an unseasonably hot and sticky Friday afternoon in late August, Andrea Wilson is loading boxes of food from Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program (MCHPP) into her car. The elementary school teacher’s destination is a public housing project on the other side of town. Some of the students who live there will be in her class in the fall, and she knows that without supplemental assistance from the food pantry many of them would be at risk of going hungry over the summer.
Hunger is a persistent and growing problem throughout Maine. According to USDA statistics released earlier this month, 6.4 percent of the state’s households have faced very low food security—the highest figure in New England and the fifth-highest nationwide. The “very low food security” designation means at least one household member reduced food intake because the household lacked the resources to obtain food. Nationally, 4.8 percent of households faced very low food insecurity between 2015 and 2017.
When Maine students returned to school, some of them were also returning to a place where they could get a healthy meal. A whopping 46.5 percent of Maine students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Many of these students receive food at school during the year,but those sources dry up when the classroom doors open for summer.
Researches have frequently attributed lack of adequate nutrition as one component of the so-called summer slide—the disparity in academic achievement between low and high-income students, which is magnified when school isn’t in session. While students from more privileged backgrounds tend to continue to grow academically during the summer months, low-income students lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year. And when students come back to school hungry, they’re unlikely to pick up where they left off.
“When you’re in survival mode, you can’t learn anything else,” Wilson said. “And if they’re hungry, they’re in survival mode.”
When school lets out in June, she worries about where some of her students will get their meals. In Maine, a critical tool against summer hunger is the Department of Education’s (DOE) Summer Food Service program, which tries to get meals to students who typically receive them free or reduced during the school year.
For Brunswick and surrounding towns, MCHPP administers the meals, receiving reimbursement from the state. Mary Sasso, who directs MCHPP’s Summer Food Service Program, emphasized the dangers of even temporary periods of hunger.
“Even one or two instances of food insecurity has tremendous developmental effects,” she said.
In addition to decreased learning outcomes, longitudinal studies have linked childhood food insecurity with mental health problems, obesity, and diseases such as asthma.
The critical issue for summer food programs is distribution, particularly in areas with low population density. Cumberland County, which contains Brunswick, is the most densely populated county in the state. This summer, MCHPP operated 11 meal sites in six towns in Cumberland and Sagadahoc Counties. All of the sites are counted as “rural” by DOE standards.
“Being in rural areas definitely makes it difficult,” Sasso said.
In Portland, Maine’s largest city, a few initiatives bus students to meal sites. But in the rest of the state, families have to find their own way to get there, and public transportation is virtually non-existent. A 2016 study by the Food Research & Action Center found that just 27.4 percent of Maine students who participated in free and reduced lunch programs during the school year got meals through the Summer Food Service Program over the summer.
In addition to issues of location and transportation, Sasso noted the problematic stigma associated with “going to a space specifically to receive a meal.” Receiving a free or reduced meal in the school cafeteria doesn’t set students apart from their peers, but traveling to the same cafeteria for a summer meal program is a more tangible admission of need.
Reducing such a stigma is difficult, but necessary in the quest of ending summer hunger. Wilson emphasized the importance of treating everyone who comes through her site with dignity. She talks to them too, trying to help residents “see the possibilities past the neighborhood.” Wilson says that she doesn’t force her views, but might sometimes give adults some gentle encouragement, for example, to pursue a GED.
Sasso also discussed arming food service sites with other tools, making them social spaces and learning environments rather than just food sites. At some sites, kids can do art projects. Volunteers visit to teach about science. It makes the summer food service feel more like a camp or craft center. This summer, a grant enabled MCHPP to offer adult meals at certain sites, enabling parents to sit down and eat with their kids and maintain a family dynamic.
After Labor Day, Maine students went back to class and the Summer Food Service came to an end. In more ways than one, summer food programs are just a stopgap. A 2017 report by the statewide organization the Good Shepard Food Bank reached the startling conclusion that the number of food pantry options has increased tenfold in Maine since the 1980s.
“Although hunger relief organizations were conceived as an emergency service for people who are temporarily in need, they have instead become an ongoing source of food support,” the report stated.
A correlation between the growth in such organizations and food security in the state is unclear, as federal measurement of the issue only began in the 1990s.
Breaking down the systemic economic conditions that allow food insecurity to persist, however, is perhaps an even more difficult task than matching kids with food programs during the summer. According to a report released by the USDA earlier this month, the percentage of Maine families who experienced food insecurity between 2015 and 2017 was actually higher than a decade earlier.
Nationally, food insecurity spiked in the aftermath of the 2008 recession; in Maine, it has remained high. While the state’s unemployment rate sits at a friendly 2.7 percent, wage growth has been slow. A 2016 Pew Research report found that wages in Maine have been growing at a rate of just 1 percent per year since the 2008 recession, the third-slowest of any state. And output—measured through GDP—is lower than it was in 2008. The loss of manufacturing jobs, such as paper mills and fisheries, has hit hard in communities across the state.
Two policy changes with respect to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) likewise affected low-income Mainers. In 2015, the state ceased applying for work waivers, which effectively meant that SNAP recipients were kicked off the program after three months unless they found work, job training or volunteer opportunities. A year later, the state imposed an asset test, disqualifying recipients who possessed more than $5,000 in certain assets.
While families with children are exempt from the asset test, seniors and adults with disabilities are not. Per the Maine Center for Economic Policy, one in three Mainers between the ages of 65 and 74 are still in the labor force—a reflection of the difficult economic conditions that span generations.
One measure that might be helping low-income families is a minimum wage hike, which voters approved in 2016. Originally set at $7.50, the statewide minimum wage rose to $9 in 2017, $10 this year, and will hit $11 in 2019 and $12 in 2020. Increased salaries for low-income workers would be expected to affect hunger; a 2016 study out of the left-leaning think tank The Century Institute found than increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 would reduce food insecurity by 6.5 percent nationally—suggesting that the minimum wage makes an impact, but isn’t an all-encompassing solution.
In Maine, advocates are quick to point out that, even when minimum wage reaches $12, single-parent households with children will likely still fall under the poverty line, so other supplemental assistance programs will remain necessary.
Nonprofits and food aid, therefore, remain crucial, even though they can’t reach all Mainers. Rain or shine, volunteers like Wilson will keep delivering food.
“We’re just trying to bring joy,” she said.
Jessica Piper is a senior from Bowdoin College studying economics and Hispanic studies.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The cover photo above was taken by Jessica Piper.