The school day started like any other at Cornelius Hedges Elementary last week with students saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
Once they finished, instead of opening their books and diving into the day’s lesson, the first-graders lined up for breakfast.
The morning meal featured milk, oranges, apple sauce, string cheese and a breakfast bar made of local oats, flour and wheat with a few chocolate chips tossed in as a tasty complement.
Over the next 15 minutes, the young boys and girls sat at their desks snacking away while working on math problems.
For those accustomed to the traditional classroom setting, it may have seemed out of the ordinary. But the scene in Kalispell was an increasingly familiar one as schools across the U.S. adopt students’ health as a priority alongside education.
Last week Gov. Steve Bullock visited one of Montana’s pioneering programs at Hedges Elementary and spent the morning having breakfast with the students.
“It was great to see that today – 38 kids getting their breakfast and then starting their work,” he said afterward. “This school district is truly leading the way.”
An increasing number of schools in Montana are implementing the Breakfast in the Classroom program as efforts to expand free school meals gains steam. Bullock and his wife, Lisa, have helped gather private fundraising alongside the Montana No Kid Hungry Campaign, which has gained the added support of Hollywood actor Jeff Bridges.
Nearly one in four children in Montana struggles with hunger, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
“This is the most solvable issue any of us face — feeding our hungry kids — and Montana is leading the way,” Bullock said.
In April, Bullock’s office announced that $50,600 in privately funded grants were being awarded to 16 schools across Montana to assist in starting or expanding breakfast programs, directly benefiting an estimated 7,000 students. The schools included Hedges ($5,000), Elrod Elementary ($2,129), Lakeside Elementary ($4,998), Columbia Falls High School ($1,000), Browning Middle School ($3,924), Browning High School ($5,000) and Troy Junior-Senior High ($5,000).
A few weeks after Bullock’s announcement, Bridges pitched in another $20,000 to the Montana No Kid Hungry Campaign, while Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit group, also contributed $20,000.
“This will ensure that these kids know where their next meal will come from,” Bullock said.
Earlier this year, Hedges Elementary School became the first in the valley to offer free breakfasts in the classroom. Lakeside Elementary has added a program, while other local schools are following.
“It’s been a fabulous program because everyone has collaborated and worked together to make it work,” Hedges Principal Natalie Miller said.
“The kids aren’t hungry and they’re really focused and ready to go. It’s been completely trouble free.”
Miller said her teachers have found the students who eat meals in the morning have performed better in the classroom while having fewer disciplinary problems. They also seem healthier, she said.
“It’s made a huge difference,” she said.
Robin Eck, an Americorps student based in Kalispell for the Montana No Kid Hungry Campaign, successfully wrote grants for five schools to receive funding for free breakfast and lunch for the entire student body. The school district is considering whether to implement the program next fall, which could provide roughly 2,000 students with free meals.
Efforts to expand healthy meals in public schools are not without critics who say it’s not the responsibility of teachers and administrators to use resources to feed children.
Kalispell consistently has a large population of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.
“You can sit around the table and say that it’s the responsibility of the parents, and it is, but when it doesn’t happen, what are we going to do about it?” Kalispell Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said. “We can’t just say it’s not our job. We have to figure out a way to get them what they need for the sake of their learning.”
Recognizing the need for quality nutrition during the summer break, the school district will once again be offering free, healthy meals to anyone under 19 years old. Breakfasts and lunches will be available beginning in June at Elrod and Russell elementary schools and Woodland Park. The food items will be similar to those served during the school year, including local beef hamburgers, local produce and other made-from-scratch snacks.
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