The number of students receiving free or low cost school lunches and breakfasts is increasing around the nation and in Alaska this year. And that’s leading legislators to prepare for an extra push during next year’s session for a bill that would help local school districts feed those children by providing state money for the nutrition programs.
Although there is a child nutrition program within the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the state does not contribute any money to see that kids eat on a regular basis. Financial help comes from the federal government – $34-million two years ago, and an expected $50-million this year.
And the problem is growing. The New York Times reports that on a national level, there are seventeen percent more children taking part in the program than four years ago. Statewide totals are not available for the current school year, but the School Nutrition Association says that forty one percent of all Alaska students qualify for meal assistance. Locally, thirty nine percent of the kids in Anchorage qualify for the programs, in Kenai, forty seven percent qualify. And in some schools, all the kids get free or reduced lunches and breakfasts.
In Fairbanks, the number of those receiving free or reduced meals has climbed from 4088 a year ago to 4,365 this year.
Alaska is one of only twelve states that doesn’t help feed kids. And bill by Juneau Republican Cathy Munoz and Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski would change that. Wielecbhowski says the state should be embarrassed.
There’s a huge amount of study done. It really is amazing the benefit that you get just from feeding kids breakfast, just from making sure they’re getting food before they go to school or during school. You get better attendance, you get less tardiness, you get better behaved kids, you get better grades, you get kids that are less likely to be obese. So when you look at all the money we spend on education – we spend over a billion dollars a year just on the state level, not counting what the local communities spend, we’re spending billions of dollars every year, and if we can make a small investment getting food in kids’ stomachs, I think we’ll have a much better education system.
Both bills call for the same level of state support – fifteen cents for each lunch and thirty five cents for each breakfast. That would provide a little more than two million dollars for the program statewide above the federal and local support. Munoz says it is enough money to help.
It’s a match, and this would provide a state participation in the program that already exists. It’s currently a federally funded program. However, individual school districts around the state also contribute. And that money comes out of the general school operation.
Amy Rouse is the Director of Nutrition Services for the Fairbanks North Star Borough Schools. She says the increases in her district show that the national problems of poverty are also here in Alaska. But she says the increased demand has not resulted in nutritional change. The School District is helping cover any shortfalls – and cuts so far have come from non-food items.
We do not want to compromise the quality of the food we give these students. We take a huge responsibility for exposing them to a wide variety of food. They may not like them all. But at least they’re going to see them, sample them, things like that – increasing whole grains, increasing access to fresh produce items, lowering sodium, taking into account purchasing local whenever we can afford to do so. Limiting preservatives when we can afford to do so. Those are all primary focuses of our menu planning.
Rouse says the lunches cost an average of $2.64 apiece. Fifteen cents from the state is not going to make or break what is now happening, but she says it will help the program evolve and improve.
Both Munoz’s and Wielechowski’s bills have been in the House Finance Committee since February without any attention, although both sponsors have requested hearings. A Senate bill was in the same position in 2010, but it ended the session without a full vote in the House.