Schools could lose free hot lunch program

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Superior Superintendent Scott Kinney (far left) talks to Rep. Denley Loge on Mar. 5 about challenges facing area schools. They include possibly losing their free hot lunch program. Also at the meeting were John Woodland and Diane Magone (far right). (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent)

Area schools are at risk of losing their free breakfast and lunch hot lunch programs.

In order for the district to qualify for the free program, 40 percent of the school’s families must qualify — based on household income and family size. Superior Superintendent Scott Kinney said Superior and Alberton are at 36 percent and only need 4 more percent in order to keep getting the free meals.

Though the economics haven’t changed in Mineral County over the past year, the Mineral County Public Assistance Program — which handles Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — has moved to Missoula. Families who qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and SNAP automatically qualify for free meals.

Families can either apply in person or online. However, a lot of them either aren’t able to get to Missoula or haven’t gone into Missoula to apply. But families do not need to go through the office in Missoula. Resources are available in Mineral County at the schools or through the Parents as Teachers Program where families can fill out the needed paperwork.

“The school would be happy to assist families who may be seeking the appropriate documents and application forms necessary for enrollment,” said Alberton Principal Mica Clarkson. “Alberton schools have been extremely fortunate in recent years to be offering hot breakfast and lunch that is made from scratch in our very own kitchen, free of charge.”

Both schools have qualified for the program over the past five years which can save a family approximately $668 a year per student. If the district has more than 40 percent of the families qualify, then the entire student body qualifies. However, if the schools do not qualify then families have to fill out individual applications.

“We may jeopardize some children’s access to healthy meals entirely. Some people may be borderline of not being eligible, yet still struggle to provide the finances for school lunch. Children from these families have the potential of being fed food that may not be as healthy as what our wonderful cooks provide, or worse, they may end up with no food at all,” said Clarkson.

CHILDREN FROM from families with incomes at or below 30 percent of the Federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the guidelines are eligible for reduced price meals. These are offered at no more than 40 cents per meal.

The federal program is run by the National School Lunch Program and if schools qualify, not only are they reimbursed for breakfast and lunch but snacks for the afterschool program is also covered. In 2017, 173 Montana schools met the 40 percent threshold and 138 schools participated in the program.

If the schools lose their funding, “obviously the school would provide food in dire circumstances, but it would surely cause anxiety for a family to be in debt over such matters. The best thing we could do for our community now is to be informed about available resources. I would urge any family that is unsure if they qualify to contact the Office of Public Assistance or Superior or Alberton schools,” Clarkson said.

Kinney said Superior school has always been heavily involved in providing social services for their students since there are not a lot of resources available in the area. They have a large resource room full of clothes, hygiene products and food that children can take home.

They have also offered cooking classes for students using crock pots. With grant funds, those students were even able to take a crockpot home. The school supplied the ingredients and the kids actually cook meals for the family. Local dentists also visit the school once a year and provide checkups and sealants for the kids, Kinney said.

Applications for the hot breakfast and lunch program are due by mid-April in order for the school to qualify. Otherwise, individual families can turn in forms until mid-October of each school year. Kinney said their elementary and junior high will probably qualify this year but the high school may not.

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