Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct the grant amount the district received for East Middle School's in-classroom breakfast program and to correct the price of in-classroom breakfast at Butte High School, Butte High’s Career Center and East Middle School. The grant amount East received was for $5,130. The cost for in-classroom breakfast is $.30 for students that qualify for free and reduced meals.
In a third grade class at West Elementary School, every day starts the same: with breakfast. Students munch on cereal and sip on milk as they complete their morning writing activities.
These fifteen minutes after the tardy bell look very similar in every classroom at West, Kennedy, Butte High, and Butte High’s Career Center, where students get in-class breakfast each morning as part of the Butte School District #1’s Breakfast in the Classroom program.
“With this morning breakfast program, we are seeing more success in the classroom,” teacher Amie Quist said. “They are fed, focused, and getting the jump start they need for the school day.”
Through the program, almost 80 percent of students in the two elementary schools are fed breakfast, said Kurt Marthaller, the district’s director of central services — which is about the same percentage of students in those schools that qualify for free and reduced meals.
West and Kennedy have the highest percentages of students that qualify for school meal financial assistance, but the need is widespread across the district. About 40 percent of families in the Butte public school system qualify for free and reduced meals through the National School Lunch Program. The program provides breakfast and lunch at low cost or no cost to Title One schools, or institutions with a high percentage of low-income families.
In Butte, eight of the district’s nine public schools are Title One. It is a federal requirement that every student at Title One schools receive an application for National School Lunch Program benefits. At these designated schools, there are multiple ways families can qualify for $.30 breakfasts, $.40 lunches, or free meals for their children. Families receiving benefits from food assistance programs like SNAP, like foster children, Head Start participants, and households with incomes that lie within the Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines, are also eligible for free and reduced-cost school meals.
However, each year, Marthaller and his co-workers struggle to get qualifying families to apply and properly submit their applications for free and reduced meals.
“The free and reduced program is seen as a social poison,” Marthaller said. “Families don’t want to be associated with it, are afraid or embarrassed, even though it is a benefit.”
Breakfast in the Classroom was one of the first successful attempts to address the negative stigma that comes with food assistance programs by providing breakfast to all students, regardless of economic status.
At West and Kennedy, all students receive this in-classroom breakfast for free. At Butte High and its Career Center, students pay $1.50, or $.30 if they qualify for free and reduced meals.
This year, Marthaller and his staff received a $5,130 grant to ensure all students at East Middle School also have access to breakfast in the classroom at the full or reduced price.
According to last year’s statistics, only 10 percent of East students accessed breakfast in the cafeteria before school, and there were fewer program applications than in years past.
“We know kids from West and Kennedy are going here, and we know the social difficulties, so we’re taking breakfast out of the cafeteria and putting it into the classrooms,” Marthaller said.
Marthaller said there are various other ways the district is working to ensure Butte’s families have access to food outside of school, including a new family dinner project at the Heart of Butte Community Café on Park Street planned for the end of October. The district also works to ensure families receive education about eating healthy on tighter budgets through the Montana State University Extension Group’s SNAP education courses for children and adults.
As pointed out in the free and reduced-cost program eligibility requirements, there is an overlap between students in need of school meal financial assistance and families in need of general food financial assistance. In Butte, the reported financial need for school meals is greater than the reported need for SNAP and similar programs. In July 2017, about 14 percent of Silver Bow County residents were receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and SNAP benefits.
Schools with 50 percent or more National School Lunch Program participants are eligible for the SNAP education courses, taught by MSU Extension Instructor Abbie Phillip. This year, Phillip said that’s students in first, third, and fifth grade at West, Kennedy, and Emerson Elementary schools.
“The program is designed to be interactive and present concepts related to healthy food choices, food safety, and obesity prevention in a way these ages can understand,” Phillip said.
Phillip hopes to start the six-week program in Butte at the start of spring semester. She also teaches similar adult SNAP education courses but says the youth and elderly have the highest levels of food insecurity. Through education related to the national food assistance programs available, she said 78 percent of adults in Montana improved their food management practices and 80 percent of Montana youth made healthier food choices in 2017.
“Our current generation’s life expectancy is lower than their parents’ and their grandparents’,” Phillips said. “A healthy lifestyle starts with managing basic nutrition.”