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Montana to apply for federal money for children’s meals for summer 2024

by Nicole Girten Daily Montanan
| October 10, 2023 7:00 AM

Montana’s health department director said last week the state is applying in January for the next round of federal money that helps pay for meals for children in the summer.

Educators and others in the state who work with schools and raise money to feed hungry kids said this week they hope the state follows through after the department declined to apply for $10 million in federal P-EBT funds — or Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer money — this summer, citing administrative burden.

The program provides funding for families with school children who don’t have access to school meals during the summer.

This week, a private fundraiser by churches in Great Falls collected more than 3,000 food items and $500 to distribute to schools and a nonprofit working to feed kids in the area.

“Ten million spread out around Montana might not feel like a bunch to some bigwig at a desk in Helena,” said Pastor Dawn Skerritt of First United Methodist in Great Falls. “To the individuals who no longer have the 20 or 40 or whatever dollars in their hands to actually go buy something with it — it means something to them.”

More children are coming back to school hungry this year.

Schools in Great Falls, Billings, and a nonprofit organization in Flathead County are seeing more kids seeking food through food pantries and school lunch debt programs. Hungry kids can have behavioral issues and often struggle with stigma seeking help.

At the event at the First United Methodist Church on Monday, representatives from three schools in Great Falls that largely serve a lower income community reported increased numbers of students seeking services this school year.

“Maybe a few years back, their bags were a little lighter,” said a representative from East Middle School. “Now they’re carrying 20 pounds of food home a week, which was unheard of a couple of years ago.”

Great Falls East Middle School Principal Brad Barringer said every teacher sees hunger-related behavioral issues at some point in their tenure — be it refusing to do schoolwork or disobeying instructions. He said there’s a stigma to taking advantage of the food pantry.

“Last year, we had kids who wouldn’t come down when we would call kids down the food pantry because they didn’t want to do it in front of their peers,” he told the Daily Montanan on Wednesday. “And then they would try to get into the food pantry after we were closing down.”

Great Falls isn’t alone. Flathead County is seeing an increase in demand for financial assistance to feed hungry kids in schools too. That’s according to nonprofit Gap Fillers, which raises money to pay off students’ lunch debt.

Gap Fillers founder and former mayor of Kalispell Tammi Fisher said some parents qualify for help but won’t fill out the forms because they don’t want to be identified.

She said kids have to go in a separate line for sandwiches, as opposed to hot meals or pizza, if their parents don’t pay. She also said schools do a lot to try to get parents to pay off the debt, like putting a note on the child’s clothes.

“But guilting the parents just really isn’t working. And ultimately what happens is the kid ends up feeling shame, right?” Fisher said. “And so then what we found is kids just stopped getting in the lunch line.”

She said multiple factors are at play, with prices at the grocery store still up and housing prices, if people can find housing at all, sky high. When school lunch was covered for everyone during the pandemic, the organization was able to tend to the other aspects of its mission, providing hygiene products and first aid kits — but with that money gone, parents are having to adjust to paying an expense they haven’t had to account for in two years.

Fisher said as a conservative, she is against ear marking and federal grants, but she chastised the Gianforte administration for not accepting funds that were already allocated to Montana.

“It’s our obligation, in particular in the highest office in the state, to take on those funds, regardless of the regulatory burden associated, because it’s $10 million that ultimately benefits the children in Montana,” she said.

She said from her fiscally conservative Republican standpoint, the benefit is “an enormous return” for Montana children.

“We want our kids to stay in Montana,” Fisher said. “We want our kids to be prosperous. We want to build business. The best thing we can do is give them the same opportunities as any other kid, not a handout, just a leg up.”

Although Fisher derided the decision against accepting the $10 million, she also said it wasn’t a surprise: “I think his approach was moronic, but I also think his approach is consistent with his approach to most of governance in Montana right now.”

However, the Department of Public Health and Human Services has said it will be applying for federal funds to help bridge the gap next summer.

During a recent Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee meeting, Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, asked about the upcoming January deadline for the state to apply for summer EBT.

DPHHS Director Charlie Brereton said the department intends to apply.

Fisher said she hopes he follows through; she doesn’t see the regulatory burdens the Gianforte administration has said are a hurdle as changing.

Billings Public Schools Superintendent Erwin Garcia told the Daily Montanan on Thursday that Billings is seeing an increase in children considered homeless in the district.

“The population of students in poverty under the free and reduced lunch currently in Billings is about 25% and that number continues to increase,” Garcia said. “If a child is struggling to get fed, and the child is thinking about food, the child is not thinking about learning.”

Garcia said he sees teachers going to social media to ask for donations for clothes and supplies for the children and parents reaching out to pay kids’ meal debts.

“Those efforts are great, but they’re not enough to cope with the needs that we see,” he said.

A region of the state not seeing a significant increase is Butte, Superintendent Judy Jonart said Thursday, saying from conversations she’s had with staff the demand has so far seemed consistent. She did give the caveat that 40% or more of four of the six elementary schools in the district already qualify for free and reduced lunch.