Gov. Steve Bullock was in kickback mode when he rambled into C.S. Porter Middle School late Tuesday afternoon.
He’d worn a dress tie and suit to do business in Helena earlier in the day, but switched to blue jeans and boots to hobnob with 55 students from the Missoula Flagship Program about what they eat and what their school and town are doing to make sure it’s the good stuff.
“One of every five kids across Montana don’t get a good lunch,” Bullock confided to a knot of boys and girls chowing down on oranges and grapes, cheese sticks, cereal bars and juice.
“I heard you say that on TV,” eighth-grader Eliot Biehl remarked.
“Did you believe it?” Bullock asked.
“Yes,” Biehl replied. “You’re the governor. I have to believe what you say.”
That drew a hearty chuckle and a mild protestation from Bullock, who’s spending time this pre-Thanksgiving week touring the state to highlight efforts to combat childhood hunger.
Bullock was in Lame Deer on Monday, and will visit schools in Browning and Kalispell on Thursday before wrapping up the tour Friday in Livingston.
In Missoula, he sampled the wares of an after-school meal program that the Missoula Food Bank began supplying last month to nine schools and the Missoula Public Library. It's via the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which reimburses service providers for healthy after-school snacks and meals.
On Oct. 12 Franklin, Hawthorne, Lowell, Russell and Willard elementary schools, Washington Middle School, and Big Sky and Hellgate high schools joined C.S. Porter and the public library in trotting out the snacks.
According to development director Jessica Allred, the Missoula Food Bank hopes to soon add an 11th recipient, DeSmet Elementary, to reach its target of 400 snacks a day served to children in Missoula.
“Part of being a CACFP partner is you’re held to nutritional standards of the USDA,” Allred said.
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Snacks get five “kid-friendly” components each day, beginning with fresh fruits and vegetables, and the menus are different day by day, Allred said.
It includes everything from peanut butter to hummus, added Allred, “all sorts of different things to get kids engaged in trying new, healthy foods that they may not have been exposed to previously."
Federal programs in Missoula schools have offered free or reduced-cost meals before school, at lunch and even in a weekend backpack program.
“After school there’s been a gap that we’re trying to fill,” Allred said.
It’s done at most of the schools under the auspices of the free after-school Flagship Program, generally the perfect target audience for a healthy food campaign.
Bullock told the students gathered in the Porter School cafeteria that he was born in Missoula. He and wife Lisa have three children, two of them in middle school right now. Combating childhood hunger has been a priority during the first three years of his administration.
Bullock is tying his school visits this week to Thanksgiving.
“One of the things I’m thankful for is programs like this, and I’ll tell you why,” he said. “I have all kinds of jobs as governor, but one of the most important is to make sure you have every opportunity to become anything you want to be, and to fulfill your potential. And I also know that you can’t do well in school if you’re thinking about being hungry.”
He repeated to the whole group the statistic Biehl was already familiar with, that one in five kids in Montana struggles with “food insecurity.”
“That means that they don’t always get enough food,” Bullock said. “And that’s not the parents’ fault. All parents try hard to do their best, but money only goes so far.”
Hunger has a direct correlation to school performance, even in enrichment activities such as those the Flagship Program offers until 5 p.m. each school night.
“It’s hard to work on robotics ... if you’re thinking more about your tummy growling than you are about robotics,” Bullock told his young audience.