Nationally, one in five children faces the threat of food insecurity.

The 15 million children that might not know where their next meal is coming from often rely on the meals provided at school for nutrition. In Missoula County, the number of children that face the threat of food insecurity is even higher. Jessy Lee, Program Services Coordinator at Missoula Food Bank, stated that “one in five Missoula children live in poverty, but the number of food insecure children is probably much higher” as food insecurity is defined by more than just household income. The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” while hunger is defined as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.”

Kelli Hess, Program Operations Director at Missoula Food Bank, stated that “we have identified children experiencing hunger in every neighborhood, every school, and every classroom” to raise awareness of this unfortunately common experience.  Kelli Hess and Jessy Lee continued to detail the specific barriers that Missoula children face when accessing healthy, nutritious food outside of school.  In addition to detailing the barriers, Kelli Hess and Jessy Lee described the role that Missoula Food Bank Kids EmPower Pack and Kids Table programs, with the help of community partners and volunteers, play in addressing childhood hunger.

Perhaps the most formidable barrier to food security that children face is the amount of time spent outside of school either after school, during the summer, and over the weekend. While in school, children that qualify based on household income for the free and reduced lunch program have access to breakfast and lunch provided by the schools and funded by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Over 50% of all Missoula County Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced meals. The NSLP was established in 1946 by President Harry Truman and provides free or reduced price meals to over 30 million children in over 100,000 schools each day. The value of free or reduced price nutritionally balanced meals available through the schools cannot be over-stated, but children already experiencing food insecurity are at an increased risk of going hungry outside of schools hours.

The Kids Table program strives to provide children with nutritious food after-school and during the summer. Beginning in October 2015, Kids Table After-School has grown to provide a five component super snack containing protein, dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables to over 400 students at fifteen sites each day.  Over 50% of students participating in Kids Table After-School report feeling hungry after school and program facilitators have reported less behavioral issues during snack time, better attendance, and improved focus.

Summer is fast approaching and many students look forward to a break from the classroom. For children experiencing food insecurity, summer break can be a time of more uncertainty and hunger. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) supports summer programs and school districts to provide a balanced, kid-friendly meal to bridge the gap left by not having access to lunch and breakfast at school. However, less than one in five children that benefit from free and reduced meals at school attend a summer feeding site. Families that are already living on a tight food budget could see their grocery bill increase by as much as $300 per month in the summer as they buy more food to fill their children’s bellies outside of school.

Missoula Food Bank supported nine summer feeding sites in 2015, including the pilot year of an SFSP open feeding site at the Missoula Public Library, which served an average of 29 children per day. The first open feeding dinner site in Missoula will open this summer at Burns Street Bistro.

Lastly, children at home over the weekend do not have access to school meals or after school meals. Missoula Food Bank established the Kids EmPower Pack program to ensure that children are nourished over the weekend so that they can come back to school on Monday morning ready to learn. Each EmPower Pack contains two entrees, two breakfasts, several hearty snacks, fresh fruit, and milk. In 2015, Missoula Food Bank provided over 500 packs each weekend to Missoula children. Over 200 more students have been identified as food insecure and needing EmPower Packs, but limited funding prevents Missoula Food Bank from serving all of the students in need of packs each weekend.

Missoula Food Bank is participating in the 24-hour online giving day Give Local Missoula County 2016 on Tuesday, May 3rd with all donations benefiting the Kids EmPower Pack program so that more children in need can be reached and supported nutritionally.

To learn more about the issues Missoulians in poverty face, join us for Food for Thought on Thursday, May 19th at 4 PM at Missoula Public Library. Kelly Rosenleaf, Executive Director at Childcare Resources, will be discussing the financial impact of childcare. This will be the second presentation in a series of discussions on families and food insecurity.

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