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The Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger (MT-PECH) held its annual partner meeting via Zoom on Thursday, February 24. The gathering’s theme is “Riding the Wave of Hope – Ending Childhood Hunger in Montana.”

MT-PECH say when Montana children grow up hungry, it has far-reaching and long-term consequences for individual success, family stability, the economy, and the collective prosperity.

According to MT-PECH, one in every four Montana children was food insecure in 2020, a 64 percent increase due to COVID-19. Fifty-one percent of Montana children live in households that do not earn a living wage, and Montana Tribal Nations have twice the rate of food insecurity.

Hunger and poverty in childhood are linked to the development of chronic disease and poor mental health; and unhealthy behaviors, and chronic physical and mental diseases account for 90 percent of annual healthcare spending in the United States, according to MT-PECH. These diseases are largely preventable by adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle.

The mission to end childhood hunger requires all Montanans to unite and prevent the root causes of childhood hunger.

An 8-Step Plan has been developed to put an end to childhood hunger. The steps are:

1. Provide a nutrient-rich breakfast for all Montana school children

2. Provide nutrient-rich meals for children during out-of-school time

3. Guarantee that all eligible families have access to public food programs

4. Increase access to healthy, affordable, locally grown food

5. Promote healthy eating for pregnant and nursing women; and breastfeeding support for new moms and babies

6. Improve adequacy and quality of food distributed through the emergency food system

7. Offer education to children and families on making smart food choices and leaning an active lifestyle

8. Increase opportunities for financial education for students and adults.

Step 1 goals include expanding the number of School Breakfast Programs, increasing the percentage of Montana students participating in school breakfast programs, providing universal free breakfast, and providing other expanded/alternative breakfast programs such as Breakfast in the Classroom and Grab-N-Go.

It can be difficult to meet all of a child’s needs, especially if the parent works hard but is unable to ensure their children are fed every morning, or how exhausting it can be when a child has to hide their hunger while navigating life in and out of school, said Lisa Lee, Co-Chair, MT-PECH, and Director of Montana No Kid Hungry.

“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recently published a study on trends in body mass index before and during the pandemic among children aged 2 to 19. The rate of body mass index nearly doubled during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels ,” Lee said.

“When we talk about improving access to food, it’s more important than ever to make sure it’s healthy food,” Lee said.

Step 2 of the plan focuses on providing nutrient-dense meals for children during non-school hours, which will entail increased efforts across the board. Increase access to School Pantry Programs, Summer Food Service (SFSP) participation and number of SFSP meals distributed, number of afterschool meal sites, and finally number of afterschool meals.

All areas of Montana are affected, but some suffer more than others. Because of the high poverty rate and food insecurity, Indian Country is frequently mentioned.

As a result, tribes like the CSKT are reconnecting with one another and their roots. Plants, traditional foods, and natural medicines are being used and brought up in conversations more frequently. COVID-19 woke the tribes and Montana to the scope of food insecurity, and as a result, positive changes are beginning to emerge.

Indigenous people and tribal nations have a unique relationship with the land they live on; this relationship feeds the body and feeds the people’s identity said Nonie Woolf, MT-PECH Executive Committee & FAST Blackfeet Board Chair

“Food sovereignty is gaining traction and visibility in our Montana Native communities and across the country,” Woolf said. “When we talk about the equitable and nourishing food system that will be Montana’s economy, the Native voice has a place at the table.”

“Whether we look at race, socioeconomic status, or zip code, we all have a necessary role to play in ensuring that all people in Montana have equitable access to nutritious, affordable, and high-quality food,” Woolf said.

“In our Montana community, we can all learn from each other; I invite you to find your place at this table, be willing to listen, and know that this is how we achieve equity in all Montana communities,” Woolf said.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.), spoke briefly and expressed his honor in being a part of the fight to end childhood hunger. “This is tremendous work, and you should all be commended. Food security and nutrition are essential for childhood development, and in a state like Montana, where our soil is rich and our communities are strong, no child should ever go to bed hungry,” said Tester. “It is clear that we must take serious action and find long-term solutions to end childhood hunger in the Treasure State.”

Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.), also spoke briefly. “Never hesitate to reach out with your ideas on how we can improve nutrition for Montana children, Montana families, and Montana communities,” Daines said. “I will continue to fight for policies that will strengthen our communities and ensure that young Montanans can live happy and healthy lives.”

The continuous effort and excellence of professionals and community members has made strides; to learn more about projects or actions being taken, visit the Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger website.

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