School Meals are for Everyone: A Letter to Missoula
Dear Missoula Community,
In my line of work, I have a lot of conversations with folks about their experience with school meals. People share their absolute favorite food from when they were a kid and their most hated, how they were jealous about so-and-so’s lunch each day, or how their children view school lunches currently. These conversations are usually filled with laughter, connection, and a common theme – all children should have access to food so they can learn and engage better at school.
Families are struggling more than ever to make ends meet due to rising housing costs and inflation. In 2022, over 9,000 children used Missoula Food Bank & Community Center’s store for food. Every day, I hear from caregivers who choose to go to bed hungry, so their kids don’t. I talk to caregivers who rely solely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Missoula Food Bank’s services to feed their families. I listen to caregivers who have to decide between paying rent or paying for basic needs for their children.
While Missoula Food Bank is rising up to meet the needs of our neighbors, there are other support systems our community can access to help their families now and in the future. First, all school-age families should fill out an application for free/reduced school meals. Currently, 83% of families at Lowell and 80% at Hawthorne and Franklin qualify for free or reduced school meals due to income. Unfortunately, not all families have filled out the form so everyone isn’t taking advantage of this program. The form is very simple, takes less than five minutes, and is accessible online or at your school’s main office. If you qualify for reduced-price meals, your student’s cost of lunch is only .40 each day!
Fill out the form here -> https://www.mcpsmt.org/domain/849
Second, share your voice with the Missoula County School Board on why it is important that free breakfasts and lunches are essential for all students. MFB&CC is working with Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) to enroll in a federally funded program called CEP (Community Eligibility Provision).
If a school is enrolled in CEP, ALL students at that school will have access to free breakfast and lunches each day without any income requirement, paperwork to fill out, or stigma from eating school meals. A school’s CEP enrollment lasts for four years, which would help families navigate this increasingly challenging financial time. CEP will decrease the paperwork burden on families and administrators, increase the amount of time students have to eat at lunch (quicker lines because student ID numbers aren’t required to be entered), and can become a source of revenue for MCPS if enough students eat school meals each day.
In addition, CEP can eliminate families accumulating school meal debt for students unable to pay for meals each day. Last year, 83 MCPS high school seniors were not going to receive their diplomas due to outstanding meal balances totaling $42,000. Missoula Food Bank and other community members joined together and paid off this balance so these students could graduate. Enrollment in CEP would eliminate students from accumulating school meal debt and prevent them from not being able to graduate.
To enroll in CEP, the MCPS School Board needs to pass a resolution that if a school qualifies, MCPS administration will automatically enroll the school in CEP for the next school year. Each MCPS school individually qualifies based on how many students at that school are enrolled in SNAP, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), are experiencing homelessness, are in foster care, are migrants, or are runaways.
Missoula Food Bank & Community Center has been partnering with the MCPS administration the past 18 months to make this happen. We have increased our SNAP assistance hours at the food bank so we can help families get signed up for this program. We have trained staff at three elementary schools on how to fill out SNAP applications with families. We have hosted engagement nights with community members to explain the CEP program. We have asked the school board to adopt a resolution enrolling schools into CEP.
We are quickly approaching the April 1st deadline for CEP enrollment for the 2023-2024 school year. We need our community’s help in letting the School Board know that this issue is a priority to our community. The MCPS School Board must adopt a resolution in March that states that any school meeting the requirements will be enrolled in CEP for the following school year. You can help by speaking at a School Board meeting or by emailing a public comment to the MCPS School Board. The next school board meetings are on February 28th, March 14th, and March 28th. If you come to a School Board meeting, you will have the opportunity to speak for three minutes sharing why you believe free school meals is important. You can email the school board with a public comment at email@example.com
Some things you can share with the school board and MCPS administration:
- How having free school meals would impact your family;
- How having free school meals would impact your classroom and/or school;
- What having free school meals would mean to the community;
- Why the MCPS administration should make free school meals a financial priority;
Please join us in asking the MCPS School Board to help out our community in a big way. We need the voices of parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators, and community members sharing that having free school meals should be a priority for our district. With your help, we can make a big difference in so many children and their families’ lives.
In solidarity and advocacy,
Mom to a MCPS 2nd grader
Family Engagement Manager
Missoula Food Bank & Community Center