Real solution to hunger requires smart policy, not just food donations
Charity is no replacement for sound policy, especially if you’re the governor of the state.
In his radio address this week, Gov. Paul LePage touts the success of an annual food drive organized through the Blaine House that helps people in need around the holidays.
There’s not a single word or idea in the short speech that I find objectionable. LePage praises Maine for its beauty and abundance of diverse foods. He acknowledges the generosity of a wealthy businessman who donated 100 turkeys this year. He brags on the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts, and he name checks the Good Shepherd Food Bank, one of the true hero organizations in Maine.
And he talks about the generosity of spirit of Maine people and the strong sense of community that inspires neighbors to look out for one another.
Every word of it is true. And it’s not enough coming from the governor.
According to Good Shepherd, 10 years after the Great Recession, 14.4 percent of Maine households are food insecure, a rate higher than the national average.
One in five Maine kids doesn’t have guaranteed access to the food they need and 18 percent live in poverty. Sixteen percent of Maine seniors are at risk of going hungry, and nearly 40 percent of the people who are food insecure in the state don’t qualify for public assistance.
The statistics aren’t accidents of the economy. They are the result of policy decisions made by LePage and his administration. Charity food drives and donated turkeys around the holidays can’t fill the food gap created when government makes the decision to let people go hungry the rest of the year.
The LePage administration has kicked thousands of Mainers off food assistance, imposed barriers for people who need assistance and has largely ignored the fact that Maine has largely bucked a national trend of improved access to food.
Charity and good works matter. We all should do our part to help our struggling neighbors through hard times. But charity cannot — and does not — replace sound public policy and systematic approaches to the problems of hunger and poverty.
During the gubernatorial campaign earlier this year, the candidates’ positions on Medicaid expansion dominated the debate about the fight against poverty. Gov.-elect Janet Mills has promised to expand Medicaid on her first day in office come January, a great change from the last eight years.
But Mills also talked about hunger on the campaign trail, and she released a four-point plan that will expand access to food for people in need, which includes removing bureaucratic barriers to access food assistance, taking advantage of federal food programs and supporting local food programs.
Answering questions from the Free Press, Mills said: “Our goal should be to ensure that no child in Maine ever goes hungry. Right now, we’re far from it — and that’s largely because of the LePage administration’s misguided approach to addressing poverty. If one thing is clear, it’s that with childhood hunger skyrocketing in Maine while it plunges nearly everywhere else, we need to do something different.”
I respect LePage’s eight years of gathering food at the Blaine House and the volunteers he has motivated to join the cause. But I’m looking forward to a governor who will show that same compassion in the policy she pursues.
No kids, no seniors, nobody should go hungry. That’s true on Thanksgiving and it’s true every other day of the year.
Next week, I’ll be writing about the race for attorney general, a constitutional office selected by the Legislature. I’ve sent an email to each of the declared candidates asking them for a 50-word explanation of why they’re running or one big idea for the office. If you’re running for attorney general, you can send your response to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll run it like you send it. Deadline is noon on Tuesday, Nov. 27.
David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.