As our Instagram and Facebook feeds fill up with first day of school pictures, children around the state are loading up in a big, yellow school buses, excited and anxious to start a new school year. You can hear their laughter and conversation as they bustle down the hallways and get settled in new classrooms. Around noon, these young students will head to the cafeteria for lunch. And this lunch at school might be the best – or only meal – that some kids get all day.
With all the excitement around this time of year, it might be easy to forget that back-to-school isn’t just about classroom time and learning how to read and write. For many children, back-to-school is coming back to regular meals.
One in six Montana kids live in food insecure households. Hunger and food insecurity are closely related, but distinct, concepts: Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household.
The US Department of Agriculture measures food security based on enough access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. Food-insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time. It may just reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.
The overall rate of food insecurity in Montana is 12.3 percent, meaning just over 12 percent of Montanans do not have consistent access to nutritionally adequate foods. When we look at the data county-by-county we can see that there are vast differences across the state. For example, in Glacier County, it is at 20.7 percent, compared to 13.1 percent in Beaverhead County, or 17.8 percent in Big Horn County. These counties differ by geography, resources, demographics, but they all have one thing in common: families don’t have consistent access to enough food to live active, healthy lives. According to 2016 data, the rate of food insecurity, particularly for children, dropped across Montana in comparison to previous years. This is great news, but the inability to access food in a consistent manner, remains at an unacceptably high rate for our neighbors and children.
Public schools play an important role for kids who struggle with food insecurity. Last school year, nearly 65,000 kids in Montana schools qualified and were enrolled in free- and reduced-cost school meals, according to enrollment data from the Office of Public Instruction. That means these kids come from families who struggle to make ends meet are able to eat a lunch at school for a reduced cost or free of charge. It is important to note that the vast majority (87 percent) were enrolled to receive free meals. In a household with two parents and two kids, the children can qualify for free meals at lunch if the household earnings are $31,980/year or $615/week. A single parent with one child would qualify at $21,112/year or $406/week.
These meals are crucial for kids to continue to learn in school and group up healthy and active.
During this time of back-to-school excitement, let’s remember that many students in Montana come from families that are having a hard time paying for the necessities. One of the most important investments we can make in our state is supporting our youngest learners. Our public schools and kids’ access to healthy, affordable meals at school is central to their future success.
MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.