As we look towards Thanksgiving, a national holiday that brings people together through food, and is celebrated by many as a time of grateful harvests, I am particularly thankful for the progress our state is making in the fight against hunger.
In 2019, Maine set an ambitious goal: to eliminate hunger by 2030. This effort could not be more critical, especially with the additional challenges we’ve seen due to COVID-19. Maine ranks 5th for highest levels of food insecurity in America. In 2021, it’s estimated that approximately 85,000 Mainers experience very low food security—meaning they lack reliable access to food on a daily basis. This represents a 10-percent increase from before the pandemic. That is unacceptable.
Hunger also disproportionately affects communities of color. According to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, even prior to the pandemic, Black households in Maine had rates of hunger that were three times higher than all other households. The pandemic widened the divide, and only worsened their struggles.
Despite the enormous challenges we are facing, I’m incredibly proud of our state’s leadership with policies to combat hunger and food insecurity. With the new School Meals for All law, Maine will become one of the first states in the country to provide school meals to all children at no cost to families. This builds on a temporary policy I successfully fought for at the federal level to make sure no child went hungry during the pandemic just because they didn’t have the right paperwork.
I’m also hopeful that proposed investments in school meals in the Build Back Better Act will move forward and soon become law. These policies would support Maine’s School Meals for All law by reducing the paperwork burden on schools and families and helping more children access nutritious meals over the summer. Nationwide, this investment would mean 9 million more children could gain access to school meals at no charge.
Build Back Better would also create new financial incentives for schools that choose to provide healthier options and provide funding to allow more scratch cooking with updated school kitchen equipment. This investment would not only support healthier futures for our children, but also allow schools to buy more products from Maine’s farmers and fishermen, strengthening our local food economy. A bipartisan bill I wrote with Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Josh Harder (D-CA), and Alma Adams (D-NC), the Kids Eat Local Act, would further support this effort by getting rid of unnecessary red tape that makes it difficult for schools to specifically request local products.
This fall, the Biden administration also acknowledged that the amount of support families receive from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) hasn’t been enough to support a healthy diet. In every one of Maine’s sixteen counties, the cost of a meal has exceeded the average SNAP allotment by at least 20 percent. This shortfall has left many families with empty pantries and fridges at the end of the month.
Following a bipartisan directive from Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture permanently increased benefit levels to help address this longstanding problem and make sure healthy meals are no longer out of reach for families that need SNAP as a lifeline during hard times. These additional benefits won’t just help families make ends meet, they also will support retailers and jobs in Maine. The USDA estimates that every additional $1 we spend on SNAP benefits generates about $1.80 for the local economy. My dear friend Russell Libby liked to discuss this “multiplier effect”, and what an effective investment it is for a state like Maine.
On Thanksgiving – and every day – I am grateful for the Maine farmers, fishermen, and workers who had a hand in the wonderful meal my family and I plan to enjoy. I am also resolved to continue to fight for policies in Washington that will help Maine meet the goal of ending hunger by 2030. This holiday reminds us all that we shouldn’t take anything for granted, including the food on our plates.