Andrea Hanson’s 8-year-old son is the family breadwinner on Fridays.
When he gets into mom’s car after school, his backpack is stuffed with far more than binders and books.
It’s stuffed with food.
And that’s a good thing, said the single mother who works 60 hours a week but can barely keep enough food on the table for her two children.
“It’s almost enough to get us through the weekend,” said Hanson, whose child is one of a staggering 200 students at Franklin Elementary who are given a weekend’s supply of food by the Montana Food Bank Network every Friday.
Across Missoula County – and the state – the number of children who rely on school just for food is depressingly big, and getting bigger.
Particularly over the last four years, since just before the recession hit, the statistics tell a tale of a growing number of Missoula families – even middle-class ones – who are being bruised by the economic woes now socking Montana right in the belly.
More children than ever rely on free food. More children than ever are homeless.
“I think it took a longer time to hit Missoula, and now we’re really starting to see the repercussions of it,” said Trish Kirschten, a Title I administrator with Missoula County Public Schools.
On Wednesday before dawn, food service employees across MCPS began cooking eggs and hash browns for 2,218 breakfasts, and also preparing lunch for 4,202 kids – half of all MCPS students.
All told, the district served more than 6,000 meals that day, not a remarkable number until you take a closer look at it.
Of the 4,202 lunches, more than half were given out for free or at a reduced price.
Of the 2,218 breakfasts, a full 75 percent were free or reduced.
And those numbers shock a longtime food service administrator.
“It’s the biggest demographic change I’ve seen in my entire life, and I’ve been doing this for 33 years,” said Valerie Addis, supervisor of food and nutrition services at MCPS.
The recession has completely flipped the statistical snapshot of the school meal program, said Addis. Before, most students paid full price for their food. Now, most are getting meals for free or at a greatly reduced rate.
Districtwide, the percentage of children on the free-and-reduced lunch program rose steadily from 2007 to 2009, but seems to have peaked in 2010.
From 2007 to 2009:
- the percentage of K-5 students on the program rose from 40 percent to 46.5 percent.
- the percentage of grade 6-8 students on the program rose from 30 percent to 40 percent.
- the percentage of high school students on the program rose from 24 percent to 31 percent.
For Addis, those numbers reveal a truth that she learned not long after moving here from the East Coast.
Montanans do not like to go on public assistance.
“You’ve got a lot of people here who need it, but just aren’t going to apply,” she said. “It’s that Montana independence.”
But once real pangs of hunger begin in their children’s tummies, they reluctantly will. And it’s the poor and the lower-middle class who are now hurting.
“The ends,” she said, “are starting to fray apart.”
They started to fall apart for Andrea Hanson when her ex-husband lost his job and could no longer pay child support. But she didn’t sign up for the free-and-reduced program, electing instead to accept the charity of Missoulians rather than the benefits of her government.
“I can get through this without (the free-and-reduced) program, so it should go to the poorest kids,” she said.
And “Montana independence” would also explain why parents have been far more likely to accept private charity – i.e., from the Montana Food Bank Network – while hesitating to get on the federal program.
When the Food Bank Network and MCPS teamed up three years ago for the weekend grocery program, fewer than 100 students were receiving food.
This year – every Friday – 600 students go home with their backpacks filled.
Meanwhile, the number of students classified as “homeless” – not necessarily without a roof over their heads, but with no permanent residence – jumped 25 percent just in the last year.
There are 425 such students within MCPS alone, said Kristi Gough, a program director at Women’s Opportunity Resource Development, which administers the McKinney-Vesto Homeless Assistance program.
Among many other things, Gough tracks the homeless students and compiles statistics every year for MCPS.
Even Gough, whose clients live in hotel rooms, cars and shelters, was surprised by what she found this year.
“We really noticed a big upswing two years ago and it’s continuing to climb,” she said. “I was actually kind of shocked when I did numbers yesterday.”
Homelessness and hunger has even hit the areas of Missoula not accustomed to it. Some of the steepest rises in free-and-reduced lunch numbers are in the Cold Springs, Meadow Hill and Sentinel sides of town.
Last year, 15 children at Cold Springs were identified as “homeless.” This year, the school started with a dozen, and that number will rise.
Chief Charlo Elementary also started the year with 13 homeless students.
Many of the “homeless” actually have a home, but it’s not a permanent place and is often with aunts or uncles or grandparents.
“If they’re lucky enough,” said Gough, “to have family in the area.”
Addis, the nutrition director at MCPS, said she sees a growing number of families who are barely making the month’s bills, but aren’t “poor” enough for federal aid.
“What I’m seeing is the growing number of parents who can’t pay their lunch bill, but aren’t eligible for benefits,” she said.
Like Addis, Gough sees pride shine through when the subject of poverty and homelessness arises with her clients.
Recently, she tended to a nurse and her children who were living in a hotel room. Gough informed her that she was eligible for benefits as “homeless” under McKinney-Vento.
“And she broke down crying,” said Gough.
“People hide it and they don’t even consider themselves homeless sometimes,” she said.
Larry Swanson, an economist with the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, said poverty is an acute and growing problem in Montana.
The most recent figures from 2007-08 show a poverty rate of 17.8 percent in the state, “and it’s certainly higher than that now.”
“Anytime you get above 10 or 11 percent, you’re looking at fairly high poverty rates,” he said.
So what do we do?
We ride it out as we always do, and we give what we can while the economy chugs to life on three cylinders.
The Montana Food Bank Network program is enormously successful, so giving food and money to that institution is enormously important.
Heather Davis Schmidt, MCPS’ Title I coordinator, said community giving and volunteering in the schools is growing in importance because the federal government hasn’t increased funds to meet the demand.
“One thing that’s important for us to remember in our office is that even though the number of people experiencing economic problems is increasing, the amount of money is not,” she said.
At Franklin School on Friday afternoon, under a bright blue sky, students piled out of classrooms to hop into their parents’ cars or warm school buses.
Their backpacks were heavier.
They were bringing home food for the family.
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.