Many parents of public school students across the state are struggling with reduced pay or unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic. School officials say that’s contributing to a spike in demand for free meals from school districts. In order to provide some relief, the federal government and the state are allowing more districts to use a program that nomally provides free meals to children in the summer.
I’m standing next to a fire station just outside of Columbia Falls as a school bus pulls up. This is one of roughly 80 stops where the Columbia Falls School District is delivering meals. Across the parking lot, a few school employees with their faces covered by cloth masks pull out crates of milk and sacks filled with lunch and breakfast. A handful of families line up to grab meals.
They shout "thank you" as they walk back to their cars. Superintendent Steve Bradshaw says the district is delivering about 1,850 of these free meals a day, more than all of the meals it serves on regular school day.
"Normally, we'll serve about 1,500 total, breakfast and lunch."
Bradshaw thinks demand could jump to 2,000 daily meals. Unlike public schools' regular free and reduced lunch program, the summer food program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows the district to serve free meals to any child under 18 who shows up at one of the stops.
Office of Public Instruction spokesperson Dylan Klapmeier says, "A previous waiver had allowed these economically disadvantaged communities that were eligible for summer food service programs to use those programs now."
Klapmeier says shortly after Gov. Steve Bullock ordered schools to close their doors last month, many districts started providing free meals under these programs rather than requiring families who were paying for breakfast or lunch to continue doing so.
Last week the federal government told Montana school districts that amid the covid-19 pandemic they didn’t need to prove economic hardship to use the free meals program
"So this is going to help a lot of those communities that are not necessarily economically disadvantaged, but are still being disrupted at this time and the kids need to get school meals."
Klapmeier says about 20 districts have applied so far and more applications are rolling-in every day. For the districts that began utilizing the program shortly after school doors closed, demand is growing fast.
In a video shared by Missoula County Public Schools, Food and Nutrition Services Assistant Supervisor Ed Christensen is showing off the district’s operations.
"So, right now we have a crew of about six and we’re putting together lunches and breakfasts to both be delivered to our open sites, and to our bus routes that are going to go out to the community and deliver."
Right now, the district is serving up to about 3,700 meals per day. In the last seven days of March, it served nearly 20,000 meals. That's the equivalent of its entire output for the free summer meal program in 2019. Districts across the state say they’re in a similar position.
Missoula District spokesperson Hatton Littman says the district is hearing a range of reasons for the spike in demand.
"Things like, 'it’s hard to get to the grocery store frequently enough to keep my fridge stocked with enough food now that my students are home all day, every day and they used to access the school lunch program;' to, 'I lost my job and I’m having a hard time making my ends meet'."
Littman says there’s a possibility that demand for these meals could spill over into the district’s free and reduced meals program when schools reopen.
"So we are not collecting new free and reduced price lunch forms right now, we're just feeding people under that summer nutrition program funding. But I would imagine that we have a significant number of families whose financial picture has changed dramatically."
She says the district will be ready to help parents who need to apply for the program. Gov. Bullock this week extended school closures to at least April 24.
More than 40 percent of Montana’s students already qualify for free and reduced lunches. OPI agrees that number has potential to increase, but says it depends on how far the economic fallout of the pandemic spreads.