Among all Montana children under age 18, more than one in five — about 46,000 — lived in poverty last year with poverty defined as an annual income of less than $18,310 for a family of three. The poverty rate is even higher among the youngest kids: One in four Montana children under age 5 lives in poverty.
These statistics are presented in Montana Kids Count 2010 Data Book, an annual report on children prepared by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Unfortunately, the poverty trend is going the wrong way, more Montana children lived in poverty in 2009 than in 2007 or in 2000. Conversely, the number of Montana families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (monthly cash assistance) was fewer in 2009 (3,711 families) than in 2000 (4,641 families), Montana Kids Count says.
Meanwhile, the proportion of Montana K-12 students eligible for free and reduced price lunches climbed to 40 percent in 2009, up from 37 percent in 2008, 36 percent in 2007 and 32 percent in 2000.
Montana schools serve 80,000 lunches and 24,000 breakfasts every school day, Montana nutrition professionals pointed out in a Gazette guest opinion earlier this fall. About half of those lunches and two-thirds of the breakfasts are served to children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on family income.
These statistics indicate that many Montana families are struggling to provide for their children on incomes near or below poverty level.
Small wonder that children's advocates and nutritionists celebrated this week when President Barack Obama signed legislation reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act that was first enacted during the Johnson Administration. The new Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act provides the first real increase in federal support for school lunches in 30 years — 6 cents per meal above the inflation rate.
The new law also continues programs that provide summer lunches for kids, fresh fruits and vegetables to school meal programs and after-school programs, encouraging local produce purchases. The law continues the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Along with renewed financial support, the law seeks to promote healthier choices in school day food offerings.
The U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act in August. When the House voted this month, most Democrats and 17 GOP members supported it. Montana's Denny Rehberg wasn't one of them. Through his spokesman, Rehberg explained his vote this way: “We're all in agreement that kids can benefit by improving their dietary habits, and Jan and I try to lead by example with our own children. But for the past two years, the federal government has become more and more intrusive in our daily lives. These decisions are better left to Mom and Dad instead of Big Brother in Washington, D.C.”
Child health and nutrition experts see a close link between poverty and the epidemic of childhood obesity. Because the cheapest foods tend to be high in fat and low in nutrition, it is difficult to provide a good diet on tight budgets.
“A healthy diet is really a pretty expensive diet,” Virginia Mermel, chairwoman of the Billings Public Schools School Health Advisory Committee told legislators at a recent forum hosted by Billings health care leaders. Nevertheless, she said all food served in Billings public and Catholic schools meets U.S. dietary guidelines, thanks to changes made in recent years.
Good nutrition is a basic necessity for good health. This column argued last week for continued support of Meals on Wheels for homebound seniors. The argument is even stronger for feeding Montana's children well: better school performance and lower risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease for a lifetime.