School meal participation rises statewide, locally
ST. IGNATIUS – It’s easy for St. Ignatius students to be fueled up and ready to learn thanks to the two hot meals they’re offered at school each day — free of charge.
“Not being hungry is one of our most important considerations for students as far as academic achievement,” said St. Ignatius Superintendent Jason Sargent.
The 2018-2019 school year is the first time all high school students in the district havehad access to free school meals. Elementary and middle school students in the district have had free school meals for several years.
According to Sargent, 80 to 85 percent of students eat school lunch each day. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Programs cover the full cost of school lunch for every student. St. Ignatius qualifies for 100 percent free lunch because the student body meets a certain threshold of financial need. In other school districts, low-income students can receive lunch for free or reduced prices.
On the state level, Governor Steve Bullock and First Lady Lisa Bullock have focused on reducing hunger through school meals in recent years. The first full week of March each year is National School Breakfast week, which highlights the importance of providing breakfast in schools. This month, Governor Bullock’s office announced that Montana had the greatest increase in school breakfast participation in the country during the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s annual School Breakfast Scorecard. According to the report, 12.3 percent more students ate school breakfast in Montana schools last school year than the year before.
“These are real results for Montana, and it shows that childhood hunger is a problem we can continue to solve,” Governor Bullock said in a press release.
Sargent said eliminating cost for students has produced an uptick in school breakfast participation in his district. “The other thing is getting creative on how to get food into students’ hands in the morning,” he said.
As students rush into school and start class soon after, they don’t always have time to finish their breakfast in the cafeteria. To make it easier for students to get their first meal of the day at school, food service staff set up “grab and go” stations in the high school and middle school. Then, students can pick up their breakfast and eat it once they sit down in class.
During a visit to a Helena school this month, First Lady Bullock spoke about the impact of increasing access to breakfast at school. “Eating breakfast provides the nutrition, energy and brain power needed to concentrate on the school tasks at hand and be successful in the classroom and throughout life,” she said.
Sargent credited the school’s food service staff with making meals that kids enjoy and working to make them accessible.
While Sargent said it’s difficult to determine the exact impact of school meals on academic success, he does think it’s been beneficial. “Having the opportunity for meals for every child definitely contributes to a more successful system,” he said.
Sargent said it makes sense to do everything possible to ensure that children are well fed during the school day. “It all trickles down to what we’re ultimately trying to do (as a school district), which is keep students safe and academically successful,” he said.