This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

Number of meals, as defined by the Office of Public Instruction, provided to K-12 public school students through Montana’s school nutrition programs during the 2021-22 school year. According to OPI, those meals were supported by $83 million in state and federal funding and included more than 13 million lunches, 7 million breakfasts and 32,000 snacks, as well as 22,894 cartons of milk reimbursed through a federal Special Milk Program. Based on enrollment numbers, the total works out to roughly 145 meals per student, at a per-student cost of $534.70. In presenting the numbers to the Board of Public Education last week, OPI School Nutrition Program Director Chris Emerson noted that the totals represent a “dramatic increase” in the number of meals served over the previous school year — an 18% rise in breakfasts and a 26% rise in lunches. Emerson attributed the increases to the fact that under federal COVID-19 waivers, meals were served at no cost to students, a situation that ended last fall.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...