February 2

OUR OPINION: Lawmakers should override LePage veto on school meals program

Feeding students nutritious meals in the summer is a smart investment, and morally right.

School runs from September to June, but kids need to eat every day. With one in five school-age Mainers living below the poverty line and many more in homes where food is scarce, a school lunch program is good, but not good enough.

Recognizing this, the federal government pays for student meals to be distributed at schools even when the school isn’t in session. Some Maine schools participate in the program, but not nearly enough to take care of the kids whose mental and physical development will suffer from two months of inadequate nutrition each year.

The Maine Legislature saw the danger of this situation and passed a law requiring schools with a majority of students who qualify for help paying for lunch to participate in the summer food program. Instead of signing it in to law right away, though, Gov. Paul LePage kept it on his desk until this month, when he vetoed it, calling it an “unfunded mandate.”

But the program is not unfunded — the federal government pays for all the food. And it’s hardly a mandate — only school districts that offer summer recreation programs are required to participate, and any district can let service organizations administer the program.

Lawmakers should see this veto for what it is: another attempt by the governor to make political points by attacking a program that helps poor Mainers. Democrats and Republicans who gave this bill overwhelming support last spring should do so again when they are asked to override this ill-considered veto.

An estimated 85,000 Maine children qualify for assistance paying for school lunch, including many who depend on their school lunch as their most nutritious meal of the day. About 13,000 of them currently receive meals in the summer.

What happens to the rest? Is there any reason to believe that their families will have more resources to take care of them when school lets out for the summer?

The rationale for a summer food program is well established, and that’s why the federal government funds it. Maine currently receives about $1 million a year. But if there were full participation, Maine would see that climb to $11 million — money that would be spent improving the health and education opportunities for members of our communities who we will one day rely on to play an active role in our economy.

Even if it were not the right thing to do morally, passing this bill would still be a smart investment.

Lawmakers should do the right thing and the smart thing and override this veto, so that thousands of Maine children who can look forward to a vacation without dreading an empty stomach.

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