JUNEAU -- For thousands of Alaska kids, a simple school breakfast may draw them to school, boost their ability to learn and improve their behavior, advocates say.
Now the pressure is growing on the state Legislature to put state dollars into the federal school meal program for the first time.
Pennies, really, supporters say. A Senate measure would require the state to pay 15 cents toward the cost of each free and reduced price lunch, and 35 cents toward each breakfast. That would cost the state a little over $2 million a year.
The money could help local school districts expand or start school breakfast programs, improve the quality of breakfast and lunches served to kids and ease the burden on districts that already are subsidizing the costs, according to the Alaska Food Coalition.
Since last March, Senate Bill 3 has been holed up in a House committee co-chaired by Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican from Chugiak. Stoltze says he wants to feed hungry kids too -- he's a big supporter of a private Chugiak organization that does just that. But Stoltze said he's concerned about creating a new entitlement. He's open to holding a hearing and working something out, he said.
An activist from Anchorage is in the capital on a hunger strike to put attention on the issue. The food coalition, which includes soup kitchens, food banks, church groups and government agencies, has made the rounds of legislators' offices to talk about how the bill would make a difference.
"Alaska has been comfortable not helping. Alaska has been comfortable letting the federal government do all the heavy lifting for feeding Alaska children," said Dean Hamburg, administrator of student nutrition services for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and legislative chair for the Alaska School Nutrition Association. "That's a little mystery to me."
Alaska is one of few states that don't either put state money into the program or require districts to offer school breakfast or lunch, according to the Alaska Food Coalition.
BETTER SCHOOL FOOD?
Senate Bill 3 unanimously passed the Senate in February 2011 (three senators weren't present to vote). It's been in the House Finance Committee since last March but isn't yet set for a hearing.
"It seems like a simple bill to me," said the sponsor, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. "I didn't think it would be a problem."
Kids who eat breakfast, for instance, perform better academically, don't cause as much trouble and are more likely to be physically active, studies cited by his office show. They are more likely to go to school. They are less likely to be obese. Some of the studies looked specifically at school breakfasts, some examined breakfast generally and some looked at the relationship between hunger and functioning at school.
The session is one-third over, and if it doesn't pass this time, backers must start anew. That's what happened in 2009-10, when a similar proposal passed the Senate only to die in the House Finance Committee.
"This just doesn't benefit poor kids," Wielechowski said. "They make the same meals for the rich kids and poor kids. So if you elevate the quality of the food for kids on free and reduced price meals you're elevate the quality of the food for everyone."
The bill has support from the Anchorage Assembly and school districts from around the state.
If it passed, all the new money that came into the Anchorage School District would go toward improving the quality of the meals, said Ardene Eaton, the district's director of student nutrition.
"We'd probably have fresh fruit instead of canned at breakfast," she said.
VOTE, OR ELSE
One activist who is pushing for the House Finance Committee to take up Wielechowski's bill is Kokayi Nosakhere, 37.
Nosakhere has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 7 trying to force a House vote on the bill. He is 5 foot, 11 inches tall, and when he began the hunger strike, a muscular 260 pounds. He is drinking water, coffee, tea and, at his family's insistence, four ounces of juice twice a day. He plans to weigh himself Monday at the two-week mark. So far he feels OK, he says.
Nosakhere is on leave from his job at Nine Star Education and Employment Services to work on the bill. Before that he was an outreach worker with the Food Bank of Alaska helping people he found at food pantries sign up for food stamps so they would have more to eat and the pantries didn't get tapped out. He was born and raised in Anchorage.
Everyone says they are for the feeding of hungry children, he said, but for whatever reason, the Senate bill has stalled once again in the House.
"Our enemies in this democracy are fear, indifference and apathy," Nosakhere said.
His hunger strike will end if the bill gets a vote or the legislative session ends. Or he dies, he says. "It's that simple."
He's staying with friends in Juneau and walking around the Capitol hoping to talk to key Republicans on the Finance Committee. But he hasn't had much luck.
That kind of pressure doesn't help, said Stoltze, co-chairman of the committee, where the bill sits.
"I don't appreciate a mandate, 'You pass this by such and such a date or I'm going to go on a hunger strike in front of your office,' " Stoltze said.
Stoltze has been taking heat over the lack of action on Senate Bill 3. He said it's still early and he will hold a hearing this session on it.
He has been targeted on liberal talk radio over the school meals bill, and he said some of the criticism has been unfair and off-base. Among other things, critics have accused him of wanting to trade his support on it for Senate support on lowering oil taxes.
Downright wrong, he said.
Anyway, other legislators have concerns too, Stoltze said.
Maybe not much money is being requested this year but will school districts, he wondered, want more in the future? Will the money help districts create more nutritious meals? Will the state just be creating a "new entitlement?" he said. That's a problem for legislators trying to craft sustainable budgets at times of declining oil production.
Besides, he's a big booster of a Chugiak-based private effort that provides food in Mat-Su, Eagle River and Anchorage schools for kids whether or not they qualify for federal meals. He gives leftover campaign contributions to Dare to Care and participates in its fundraisers. But he acknowledged that the program is a supplement, not an alternative, to the federal school meals program.
TENS OF THOUSANDS
At last count, 52,000 Alaska schoolchildren qualify for free and reduced price meals.
As of the 2009-10 school year, the federal government paid $35 million for school meals in Alaska, families paid $15.5 million, and districts kicked in almost $8 million, according to the state Department of Education and Early Development.
To get free or discounted meals, families must be low income. But many other kids pay full price. In Anchorage elementary schools, a full-price lunch is $3.15.
Even a few cents per meal would make a difference, especially with new federal requirements being phased in to offer more fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, which tend to be more expensive, school district nutrition officials say. School meals are getting healthier, they say.
Schools in Wielechowski's Senate district, which includes parts of Muldoon and Mountain View, have a high percentage of kids in the free lunch program. Some kids are glad when summer ends because they know they'll eat better at school, he said.
Wielechowski said he's not sure how to answer the concerns about creating a new program.
"We can sit up here and argue the politics of whether or not we should be doing this, but the fact is there are hungry kids and if we don't do some sort of small action to help out, they are going to be hungry, and they are not going to learn and it'll have an impact for the rest of their lives," he said.