Out to lunch

Proponents of the bill said only about 16 percent of students eligible for free or reduced cost lunch in the summer get them.
Exterior of the Maine State House
The Maine State House in Augusta.


“Today, all we are asking — and expecting — is for the adults to have a conversation about the hungry children at their school, in their community. Today, we are asking schools who already offer summer programming like a rec program, to consider whether a summer food program is right for them.”


Maine state Senate President Justin Alfond in a speech on the floor of the Senate on Feb. 11


“This bill presents an irresponsible unfunded mandate.”


Gov. Paul LePage in his Jan. 10 veto message about Alfond’s bill


Both Gov. LePage, a Republican, and Sen. Alfond, a Democrat, were referring to a bill, L.D. 1353, titled, “An Act To Further Reduce Student Hunger.” As a Portland Press Herald reporter wrote, the bill “requires schools that hold summer activities, and where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, to offer the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Services Program, which reimburses school districts for the entire cost of the food.”

Proponents of the bill said only about 16 percent of students eligible for free or reduced cost lunch in the summer get them, leaving up to 70,000 students without that opportunity because the schools in their districts do not have summer lunch programs.

The bill would require those schools to offer the program on their own or with a local organization such as a church (the federal government would pay for the food, but not the cost of setting up and running the program). A school could opt out of the program only if it deemed the program fiscally or logistically “impractical” and only after a public hearing, a vote of the local school board and then notifying all parents in the district of its reason.

The legislature passed the bill, the governor vetoed it and the legislature overruled his veto, meaning it will become law.


Both sides employed well-established political phrasing to obscure the full story and make their side appear virtuous. LePage played an old favorite of the limited-government crowd — the “unfunded mandate” — even though a good part of the cost was funded.

The key phrase in Alfond’s statement is “have a conversation about,” which sounds innocuous, like talking about the Red Sox pitching rotation over a pint. But the law says nothing about a friendly chat — it requires certain schools to have a summer school lunch program. The only way out is by jumping through a series of legal hoops and then looking like meanies who wouldn’t even give a free meal to a hungry child.


For LePage — “The Democrats set a trap for me to look like Ebenezer Scrooge, but the hell with them: No free lunch on my watch.” For Alfond — “If the ‘conversation’ doesn’t go our way, then it’s on you if kids in your town go hungry.”


John Christie

John Christie is the co-founder, former publisher and former senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. He has covered local, state and national politics as a reporter, editor and publisher at newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts and Florida and holds a BA in political science from the University of New Hampshire.
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