ANNAPOLIS– In 2008, when nearly 207,000 children in the state were at risk for hunger, Gov. Martin O’Malley committed to making Maryland the first state to eliminate childhood hunger, and having been re-elected, he will have the opportunity to see this goal through.
The results of the first year of the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger showed progress. Students participating in the School Breakfast Program increased 7 percent, summer meals served by schools increased 11 percent, center-based food providers licensed by the state increased 5 percent, and families in the Food Supplement Program, formerly food stamps, increased 35 percent.
Though these increased numbers may be attributed in part to the economic decline by making more people eligible for services, expanding the funding and reach for such programs is even more of a priority now than before, said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for O’Malley.
Ending childhood hunger by 2015 is a partnership among Share our Strength, a national organization that fights childhood hunger, the Governor’s Office for Children, and several agencies and organizations.
At a meeting on Tuesday to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Partnership, O’Malley celebrated the achievements of the initiative thus far.
“It is not the second year of our coming together, it is the second year of progress,” O’Malley said.
To achieve the goal, O’Malley’s administration has developed several strategies: raise awareness of existing programs to eligible families, increase access to existing programs and strengthen community resources to make getting children healthy food a priority.
A contributor to the core advisory group of the Partnership, the United States Department of Agriculture, added the goal of combating childhood obesity in addition to ending hunger.
In Maryland, 15 farmers markets now accept food stamps. This is a clear success for increasing nutrition while decreasing hunger, said Yvette Jackson, Mid-Atlantic regional administrator for USDA.
“Gov. O’Malley set an ambitious goal that all families with children will be able to participate in the Food Supplement Program,” Jackson said. “I know (Maryland) will reach that goal and am looking forward to (Maryland) setting an example for the country.”
Kaiser Permanente also signed on to help fight childhood hunger in Maryland.
It is “unacceptable” that school is the only place that many children get a balanced meal, said Maritha Gay, senior director of external affairs for Kaiser Permanente.
“Far too many children arrive to school hungry, and that really bothers us,” Gay said.
According to the Partnership’s website, a main obstacle to ending childhood hunger is educating the public about services that are already available.
Programs that provide services and food to families in need are severely underused by eligible candidates, according to the site. For example, only 21 percent of eligible children participate in the summer meals program, which provides free snacks and meals to children who depend on school lunches during the academic year.
The Partnership attributes low program enrollment to lack of awareness, language barriers and enrollment procedures. A major goal is to increase the number of eligible participants using programs that already exist.
The Partnership to End Childhood Hunger is in the process of developing a more comprehensive five-year plan to accomplish its goal.
“One of the great shames of our country is that anyone can go hungry,” O’Malley said. “It is within our capacity to fix this.”