AUGUSTA — Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, introduced the Kids First plan, which includes two major pieces of legislation designed to improve access to child care and reduce student hunger, at a press conference alongside business leaders, providers, parents, students and advocates on Thursday.
“All children deserve a chance to live a healthy, happy and productive life. Where a kid lives or how much their parents make shouldn’t ever prevent them from getting ahead. Yet, too many children go to school hungry regularly. How can we expect them to learn on an empty stomach? If parents don’t have a safe place to drop their kids off to learn while they go to work, how can we expect parents to make ends meet for their families? And if child care workers aren’t supported, how can we expect them to stay open?” said President Jackson. “Things were difficult before the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is no question that this crisis has had an outsized influence on our kids. The Kids First plan makes Maine kids a priority as we work to normalcy. We must ask ourselves what does it mean to truly put our kids first — and then, follow through.”
“In Maine, we’re facing twin crises in childcare: parents can’t find affordable child care, and child care providers struggle to afford to stay in the industry. Increased public investment is needed to give all Maine children with working parents an opportunity to access high-quality early education and ensure our kids are prepared for Kindergarten,” said House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. “It’s time for a real investment in child care and real action to make life better for Maine families.”
The first bill — LD 1679, An Act To Address Student Hunger through Expanding Access to Free School Meals — would make School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs available to all Maine students at no cost. Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England, with one in six Maine students lacking regular and reliable access to basic nutrition. The number of children experiencing food insecurity is projected to increase by about 40 percent statewide due to families experiencing economic hardship due to COVID-19, statewide eligibility for school meals.
“Growing up, it was just me, my mom and brother. For years we bounced from house to house while my mom bounced from job to job. Along the way, not only was it difficult adjusting to a new school every year, I often didn’t know if I would have school lunch. The only way I was guaranteed a meal was free school lunch, but I hated feeling like I was the only one,” said Keagen Becvar, JMG Student from Mechanic Falls. “As I have gotten older, I have noticed that my family wasn’t the only one with this problem. I often see students at my school who don’t get breakfast or lunch. Not only do I not want others to feel the way I have, but I also think it is important to make sure all kids have access to a warm meal without cost.”
Due to the limitations of the current method of collecting family income data through school meal benefit applications and the USDA income guidelines, as well as the deep stigma associated with living in poverty and needing assistance, the school meal eligibility rate never fully captures the need. According to Feeding America, many families experiencing food insecurity are not eligible for school meals.
“Hungry kids can’t learn. Students who participate in school meals, particularly those who are experiencing food insecurity, have better health outcomes, have improved test scores, and are more likely to graduate,” said Justin Strasburger, Full Plates, Full Potential. “Throughout this pandemic, we’ve proved that we can feed all kids through the school meals program. We cannot go backward and we can’t take food away from Maine kids.”
The second bill — 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 First 4 ME program administered by DHHS. It’s based on a successful program in Somerset County, with a proven track record of success. Under this proposal, Maine could create five additional programs across the state.
“I think the emphasis on quality is important to note when discussing this bill. We need to expand childcare but also make sure we are assisting existing programs to improve the quality of their work. Providing funds to train staff, improve the environment settings and provide resources and support to directors would be a monumental benefit to the birth to five community in our great state,” said Jordyn Rossignol, Ms. Jordyn’s Child Care and Preschool. “In order to stimulate our economy, we need to get back to basics and start from the beginning and that is with our children. By investing in early education and high-quality child care services we are creating endless benefits to combat multiple sectors of the economic crisis we are in. When you do support this bill, my colleagues and I will happily show you the good in the work we continue to do.”
“Over 60% of our members report that their employees have trouble finding childcare. This translates into very real business impediments that undermine our economic development efforts at the state and local level, with 75% of our members saying that their employees experience unplanned work absences due to lack of childcare, and nearly 50% saying that lack of childcare has caused issues when it comes to employee retention,” said Eamonn Dundon, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We support these bills because we know that an affordable, accessible and quality early childcare system is crucial to the economic development prospects of our state,” said Without access to childcare more workers will remain on the sidelines of the economy, imperiling our state’s efforts to rebuild from COVID-19, and more young Mainers will lose out on the foundational benefits early childhood education provides.”
Both bills were the subject of public hearings this afternoon. LD 1678 had a public hearing at 1 p.m. in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. LD 1712 had a public hearing at 3 p.m. in the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.