Caven Wade

(UM Legislative News Service) The House Education Committee tabled a bill 12-1 last week that would have provided funding for free school meals to all students in the public school system.

Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, sponsored House Bill 863, which would require $22 million yearly of the state’s general fund to be appropriated to the Office of Public Instruction, which would then distribute the money to public schools to pay for students’ breakfast and lunch.

“Kids need nutritious food to learn and grow, and to be healthy. Unfortunately in some of our counties one in four children are battling hunger, which is impeding their ability to learn in school and without proper nutrition to fuel their minds and bodies a portion of our tax dollars spent on our public schools are simply going to waste,” Romano said at the bill’s hearing on March 27.

Romano said when children are better fed they are more able to concentrate and their test scores increase. She said that being able to feed children during a critical time of growth in their life will help to better the development of every child's academic potential.

“By feeding all our kids at school we address the fundamental barrier of stigma and shame. Not long ago my family experienced hardship and my four children qualified for free school meals. While I can recognize how helpful the assistance was and I’m extremely grateful it was an option for my family, I can still remember my feelings of inadequacy as a mother and failure,” Romano said.

Lorianne Burhop, chief policy officer at the Montana Food Bank Network, was one of 14 supporters of the bill at its committee hearing. She said school food programs are a vital part of nutrition to Montana’s children, and that this bill would ensure that every child has the proper nutrition available to them.

“Many children miss out on the benefits of school meals due to the financial cost involved. Our current structure for school meals, which tiers children into paid, reduced price and free categories creates administrative burdens for schools,” Burhop said.

She said these tiers also create a stigma placed on students when they receive free or reduced meals, because that leads to their peers knowing their economic status.

“As a country we value public education. We provide teachers, books, bus rides, physical activity to our students, but an essential piece of this educational experience is missing. School meals are just as important to students' academic success as textbooks and transportation,” Burhop said.

There was no opposition at the bill's hearing.