Failing Our Children

DSC_2183.NEFMany schools across Montana are purchasing healthy local food from area farmers through Farm to School programs. Earlier this Legislative Session, the statewide food policy coalition Grow Montana developed the Farm to School bill with the simple goal of securing a small amount state funding to help schools with the start-up costs of getting local food programs going. The Butte School District, for example, has had a very successful Montana meal day, and would like to continuing sourcing local foods as part of their regular purchasing, but needs a little help paying the slightly higher costs of food that is fresh and healthy, and was grown by a Montana farmer. It is schools like these that would benefit from a Farm to School grant program.

It is easy to see why Farm to School is a win-win: the 80,000 or so kids who eat school lunches each day in Montana get fresher, Montana grown food, and our ranchers and farmers sell more of their food into a stable institutional market right here in our own communities.  These programs also benefit the Montana food processors, distributors, and packers who work with the schools.

Despite the fact that the bill easily passed through the House by a count of 70 to 29, it was tabled by the House Appropriations committee and is now dead. I understand that this bill died because it required funding, and also because of ideas on the role of state government in helping Montana’s farmers sell to local schools. But, what was lost here goes beyond economic and political ideologies. What was lost was a great opportunity for our state to show that our priorities lie in the health and well-being of our children, and that we as citizens really are concerned about the future of our state beyond our lifetimes.

The Farm to School bill called for a modest amount of state money, $300,000 in grant-funding over the course of two years.  This is small amount in a state that has a budget surplus of over $400 million.  I am all for prudent savings, but if we can’t choose to invest less than one tenth of one percent of our surplus into a program that benefits our children’s health and our state’s economy, I must ask “what are Montana’s priorities?”  Even if the money came directly from the pockets of the citizens of our state, it would have cost less than fifteen cents each year per Montanan. Fifteen cents!  Anyone have an extra dime and nickel they aren’t using?  Or maybe we should just have everyone check under their couch cushions?

The number-one health concern in our country is obesity.  It is the root of many of the chronic illnesses people suffer from, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, asthma, osteoarthritis, and gout.  Over one third of America’s children are overweight or obese, meaning one out of three of our children is at a greater risk for health problems.  This is a frightening stat, but fortunately it is one that can be changed through programs that promote healthy eating, help schools buy healthier, fresher food, and educate students and teachers about food and nutrition – programs like Farm to School!  As a nation, a small investment in these types of programs can save us billions of dollars in health care costs in the future.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about having foresight, having the ability to make tough decisions and put in the work now, with the hope that down the road it will pay off for everyone.  The Farm to School bill was a perfect example of an opportunity for our state to have foresight in our state’s health, both literally and economically.  This bill could have been a tiny step towards putting our children first, and knowledge that that is the greatest investment we can make.

Unfortunately, in the existing political paradigm children don’t have much of a voice. Instead they are often used by politicians as propaganda tools to tug at the heartstrings of their potential supporters.  Without a true representative voice in government, the needs of our states’ children are often left up to our legislators, the adults we have chosen to be in charge of such decisions.  I ask that we hold our state leaders accountable and speak up for our children who do not have a political voice and let our legislators know how disappointed we are about this missed opportunity.  You can do this with phone calls, letters, emails, and your votes in 2014.

Despite this missed opportunity by our legislature, there are still many opportunities to get involved in Farm to School programs. The National Center for Appropriate Technology – or NCAT – manages the statewide Farm to Cafeteria Network, which provides information on Farm to School and other institutional local food programs in Montana. A quick web search for “Montana Farm to Cafeteria” will lead you to their website. You will find resources for Farm to School programs, a calendar of events to get involved in, survey results from producers that want to sell to schools and the foodservice directors that want to buy from them, as well as opportunities to connect with others involved in these programs in your area. The legislature missed an opportunity in not funding HB 471, but you don’t have to miss an opportunity to get involved with Farm to School in your community.

In Missoula I’m Jason Mandala for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org.

This commentary originally aired on April 25, 2013 on Montana Pubic Radio.

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