Proponent of school meals bill: ‘No child should bear shame for lacking the funds for food’

By: - March 27, 2023 7:46 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Several years ago, a student told Pat Kissell she was hungry, and he wondered if she’d skipped dinner.

Kissell, an educator, said the student told him she’d eaten macaroni and cheese, and he asked if she’d eaten it cold.

“‘I had to eat it out of the box because my mom and dad told me we couldn’t light the stove,’” Kissell recalls the student saying.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Maria Foot, another teacher, started putting snacks that students didn’t eat right away in a pantry so they would be available later. Foot said the number of children who interrupted class to talk about being hungry dropped.

Since then, Foot said she’s started to use her classroom money to keep the pantry stocked with food.

Monday, teachers, a principal, employee representatives, and food bank spokespeople spoke in support of House Bill 863, to fund school meals for all children.

Proponents said public schools make sure children have textbooks and bus rides to get to school, but they need food to learn, too. And these days, they said inflation and housing costs are putting pressure on family budgets.

The Governor’s Office did not testify on the bill, but in a recent news release about Montana’s low unemployment rate, it noted grocery prices are up 10.2% during the last 12 months. In the same period, it noted eggs are up 55.4%, coffee is up 11.4%, fruits and vegetables are up 5.3%, and baby food and formula are up 9.8%, citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those in support of the bill included the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana Farmers Union, the Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools, the Blackfeet Tribe, the American Heart Association, MOFE, or Montanans Organized for Education, and the Montana School Nutrition Association, among others.

Sponsor and Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, said one in four children battle hunger in Montana, and without proper nutrition, the money taxpayers spend on public education is going to waste. Plus, she said not all children who are hungry qualify for free or reduced meals.

A fiscal note estimates the cost above and beyond the amount paid for by the federal government would be $22 million. Romano noted that money would eliminate school debt that racks up when parents can’t pay for meals their children eat.

“It is time that we made sure that our Montana kids have access to nutritious meals at school, regardless of family income, so that they can truly focus on learning, not where their next meal is coming from,” Romano said.

Charles Lapp, with Gap Fillers Flathead, said one of the main reasons his organization formed in 2019 was to eliminate school lunch debt for students.

At school, he said some children get to go through what’s known as the “hot lunch” line, but others are “shuffled” to another line where they get a bowl of soup or brown bag with a sandwich and piece of fruit.

Lapp said students know who is whom, children are often told in earshot of others that their parents need to pay their food bill, and sometimes, they get notes pinned to their clothes.

In its first two years, he said his organization was able to pay off nearly $60,000 of school debt in the Flathead, and most of it had been on the books for years.

During the pandemic, the federal government paid for meals, but in the current school year, his organization has been contacted by schools for help for a total debt of more than $50,000 for just the first four months of the school year, Lapp said.

“No child should bear shame for lacking the funds for food,” Lapp said.

The Montana Food Bank Network also testified in support of the bill.

The Network’s Lorianne Burhop said one in seven Montana children lives in a household experiencing food insecurity, and at least one quarter of food insecure children don’t qualify for even reduced lunches.

Ashlee Schleicher, with the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center, said of the more than 24,418 unique individuals served last year, 8,178 were children.

Schleicher said one parent recently explained the reason free school meals were so important to the family budget. The parent said they were making $25 more than allowed to get help, and it meant the family had to spend $100 a month for lunch for multiple children — “a huge financial loss.”

“Every day I talk to parents who share with me the hard decisions they have to make due to food insecurity: Should they buy groceries or pay their rent on time? Should they go to bed hungry so their children have more to eat?”

No opponents testified, and the House Education Committee did not take immediate action on the bill Monday.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.