Third-graders line up for lunch

McKinley School third-graders line up for lunch in 2014.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

A federal program lets schools with a high proportion of students from poor families offer free lunch to all kids. Most Montana schools that qualify for the program offer it, with a notable exception — Billings.

Of nine School District 2 schools that qualify for the program, only two offer it. Statewide, almost 80 percent of qualifying schools use the program. 

The district plans to add three more schools next year, but officials said a mix of paperwork problems with the state and cost issues have hindered the process. 

The Community Eligibility Provision, enacted in 2010, allows schools with more than 40 percent of their students whose families qualify for programs like food stamps to offer free lunch to all of their students. The feds then reimburse schools, and schools don't need parents or guardians to file the usual free and reduced lunch paperwork. 

“I think it just makes it easier for schools to participate,” said Lisa Lee, with No Kid Hungry, an advocacy group. 

Statewide, 173 schools met the 40 percent threshold this school year, and 138 participated in the program. Some had individual schools participate. Others lumped schools together to create a collective percentage.

Orchard was the first Billings school to use the program in 2014-15, said Sid Taylor, a general manager for Sodexo, the company that supplies food for SD2. Washington Elementary also participates; the two schools are lumped together with a 63.35 percentage of students who qualify. 

Others like Newman, Ponderosa, and McKinley elementary schools were left out despite having more than 56 percent of their students qualifying. Those three schools will be included next year. 

But that 56 percent mark is near the break-even point for Billings on federal reimbursement, officials said. 

"If you take a school that's at 40 percent, it's actually going to cost the district money," said SD2 chief financial officer Mike Arnold. If that happens, money would have to be pulled from day-to-day operating funds to cover the cost, and something else would lose out. 

The 40 percent mark is “a harder one to adopt for some schools,” Lee said. But SD2 has been a tentative adopter of food reimbursement programs,  she said. 

“We’re not getting the same vibe back from the schools in Billings. … For some reason it’s just a community that’s more slow going,” she said. 

Of schools or groups of schools in Montana that had a lower qualifying percentage of students than McKinley Elementary, more than 60 percent participated in the program. 

Missoula grouped together eight schools, with a shared percentage of 43.16. 

SD2 officials also said that coordinating paperwork regarding school's Title 1 status, a student poverty-related federal funding program, and lunch programs at the Office of Public Instruction has been cumbersome, and that not having free and reduced lunch paperwork for individual schools can hinder grant applications. 

Taylor called the program a "wonderful thing. ... It lightens the burden on the families."

A robust body of research supports the idea that kids who show up to school hungry struggle academically compared to full-bellied peers. 

“It also impacts their behavior and emotions,” Lee said. “They tend to have more behavioral problems."

Billings School Superintendent Terry Bouck framed school hunger as an equity issue. 

"We have to make sure that all of our kids have that level playing field," he said. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.