As the demand for services at the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center continues to swell, the nonprofit’s staff are exploring different avenues to fight food insecurity among children and families through school meal programs. 

Their actions come at a time when Montana is refusing $10 million in federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) funds and when USDA waivers that provided free school meals to all students regardless of their household income during the pandemic are no longer being offered. Moreover, food insecurity is on the rise in Missoula as community members struggle to make ends meet with the high cost of living coupled with the inflated cost of groceries.

“That $10 million would be going to families in need in our community, and unfortunately that decision is just super harmful to the folks in our community,” said Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank. “We are seeing record numbers here at the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center.” 

Last year, the food bank served 24,000 individuals and has continued to experience record numbers each month, Thompson said. On a single day in June, for example, the food bank served 447 households, many of them new customers who had never before accessed its services. 

“I think that just really is an indicator that people are really struggling in our community,” Thompson said. “We have never seen numbers that high before.”

 “I think that just really is an indicator that people are really struggling in our community. We have never seen numbers that high before.”

Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank

Additionally, the food bank is receiving fewer donations, and Feeding America — a grocery program the food bank uses to help stock its shelves and prevent food waste — is yielding fewer items as grocery stores are more tightly holding onto their inventories.

Throughout the last school year, Ashlee Schleicher, a family engagement manager at the food bank, surveyed customers, parents, school administrators and staff about their opinions regarding free school meals. 

Of the 541 food bank customers she surveyed in February, 85% felt that having free school meals would help the community, and 80% indicated that students learn and engage better in school if they are properly fed. 

Schleicher also hosted monthly community events to help organize the community and reinstate Missoula County Public Schools’ participation in the Community Eligibility Provision reimbursement program through the USDA. The program is an option for individual schools and districts in low-income areas and allows breakfast and lunch to be provided at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications for the National School Lunch Program, which offers qualifying students free or reduced priced meals. 

However, in order for districts to cover costs through the Community Eligibility Provision, 62.5% of students must show a need for food, which can be demonstrated by the number of students participating in programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Missoula County Public Schools took part in the program about a decade ago, but participation in the program was not high enough to break even, according to Schleicher. Last school year, the food bank focused on making meals free through the Community Eligibility Provision at three of the district highest-needs schools: Franklin, Hawthorne and Lowell. This coming year they are adding efforts for Russell Elementary and C.S. Porter Middle School.

Only 40% of students must show a need for food in order for a school to participate in the program, and at the end of the school year, Franklin Elementary was over that threshold to participate and make all meals free for students. However, Missoula County Public Schools is withholding the school’s participation in the program for next school year until it hits 62.5% to receive the full reimbursement rate, according to Schliecher. 

“If (parents) knew that they could be enrolled in this program and have free school meals for their family and then find out, oh you know what, we just didn’t do it…I think that would be really frustrating and possibly upsetting for families, especially at our highest needs schools,” Schliecher said. 

Moving forward, Schliecher encouraged families to attend school board meetings and voice their support for free school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision.

“Let administrators or city officials or school board members know that this is a really important issue that we all need to be taking really seriously,” Schliecher said. “Food is so important to our kids’ emotional well-being and academic success, and, if we can just take that one little piece of the puzzle and make it really good, it can change our whole community.” 

The nationwide push for free school meals was spurred by the pandemic as the USDA provided waivers so that schools could offer meals at no cost regardless of a child’s household income, said Alexis Bylander, a senior child nutrition policy analyst with the Food Research & Action Center. When the waivers were no longer offered, many school districts across the country reported that fewer students were participating in meal programs, according to a national report

Prior to the pandemic, no state offered universal free meals for students. But after the USDA pandemic waivers expired, Maine and California were the first states to implement permanent policies for free meals beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, according to the Food Research & Action Center

“This is an issue that people are so passionate about; the pandemic changed the way that we looked at school meals,” Bylander said.

As of July 2023, there are seven states offering all students free meals on a permanent basis, and 23 others have considered similar legislation, including Montana, although that bill died during the last legislative session. 

Earlier this week, Montana leaders and community members rallied at the Montana Capitol to urge Gov. Greg Gianforte and the DPHHS to reverse course and accept the P-EBT funds that would help feed children and their families. Despite their efforts, the Gianforte administration is steadfast in its decision to no longer participate in the “temporary, pandemic-era program” and maintained that other programs are filling that need, DPHHS communications director Jon Ebelt said in an email

“We will continue to serve low-income families and reduce food insecurity through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that currently benefits over 84,000 Montanas, with 40% (of) recipients being children,” Ebelt said. 

Ebelt also noted that approximately $13 million in P-EBT benefits from last year still has yet to be spent. Families did not have to apply to receive P-EBT funds and some opted to return the benefits because they did not need them, Ebelt said. Additionally, the DPHHS distributes about $14 million a month in SNAP benefits. 

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Skylar Rispens is a freelance journalist based in Missoula. Skylar grew up in Helena and graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and has worked as a reporter for the Seeley Swan Pathfinder, the Great Falls Tribune and the Missoulian. Find her on social media @skylar_rispens