Back to school means better access to meals for many Montana children

As kids across Montana stuff their backpacks with notebooks, pencils, and crayons, there is one thing they won’t have to worry about packing – their school lunch. This year, like last year, children nationwide have been able to receive free school meals.

The pandemic meant extraordinary administrative challenges, frequently changing financial circumstances, and unforeseen stressors, For schools and families alike. Free school meals have provided consistency for millions of children and families, who did not have to navigate a complicated application process in a time of uncertain employment.

Most importantly, they provided students with nutrition and a chance to learn and grow in a time of unprecedented challenges. And while the pandemic surges on, free school meals address a childhood hunger crisis that existed even before the coronavirus made us painfully aware of the schools’ role in keeping students fed.

When schools closed in the spring of 2020, American policymakers realized how many students relied on school meals. Many students living on low incomes were eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals. Unfortunately, these programs often left out students whose income was a little too high, and families who weren’t aware of the program or didn’t understand the application.

No child in Montana – a state that helps feed the nation – should know what hunger feels like. But too many do. This summer, 29,000 households in the state reported that the children in the household had not received enough food to eat the past week. As children head back to school, free school meals can help address this crisis.

The extension of free school meals is set to expire at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. However, Congress has the opportunity to decrease food insecurity in children for years to come.

The first proposal is expanding the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT). In the summer of 2020, Congress provided food assistance for families who received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and/or free and reduced-priced school meals, because those students were unable to receive school meals when the schools closed. The program was extended through the summer of 2020 as many families struggled to utilize summer meal service sites due to the pandemic. In the summer of 2021, the program was again renewed, helping to address the challenge of summer hunger that existed even prior to the pandemic.

Congress should make summer EBT a permanent feature, providing 29 million children with assistance when school meals are not an option. Montana does provide free summer meals at certain sites through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), and this year served a record number of summer meals. But while Summer Nutrition Programs, including the SFSP, are an important resource for families, they only reach one out of every five kids who qualify. Summer EBT can help fill the gaps in nutrition many children experience during the summer.

The second change is increasing the Community Eligibility Provision. Community eligibility allows schools to provide free meals to all students in high poverty areas, regardless of their income. This flexibility helps catch families who would normally be eligible, but do not know about it or think they might be ineligible and never apply.

Community eligibility also helps reduce the stigma of free and reduced-price lunches, allowing all children to meet their needs without fear of judgment. The proposed federal budget would increase the share of federal fund for the program, allowing more schools to pursue this option.

The pandemic has taught us that we cannot undervalue the roles that schools play in our towns and cities. Not only are they centers of learning, but sources of safety, community, and nutrition for thousands of Montana children. Congress should act now to help expand schools’ ability to make sure that no child goes hungry during school or the summer. A strong federal budget matters when it comes to keeping Montana’s children hunger free. 

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