School meals bill stalls as backer continues hunger strike

Rep. Stoltze plans no hearing on legislation despite 28-day protest.

Anchorage Daily NewsMarch 5, 2012 

JUNEAU -- As an Anchorage resident reaches Day 28 of a hunger strike over stalled school meals legislation, the co-chairman of the committee where the bill is holed up said he's changed course and does not plan to hold a hearing on the measure.

State Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said Monday he wants instead to create a new $3 million school food program using Alaska grown or caught food.

His idea to create the trial program, which he plans to insert into the capital budget this session, would let school districts use credits from the fund to buy Alaska produce and seafood, creating a new market for local food and, he says, ensuring better nutrition for school kids.

"There are vendors in Anchorage that are working on things, like salmon wraps they would prepare for the schools, much more nutritious foods," said Stoltze, who is a non-voting member of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute board.

As co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, Stoltze is in a position to push through his plan. He said he's worked on it for more than a year. He also can kill legislation he doesn't like, and he never embraced a Senate-backed measure that, for the first time, would have put state money into the federal school breakfast and lunch program. Stoltze says that's just expanding a government program that many qualifying families don't participate in anyway.

Senate Bill 3 passed the Senate Feb. 28, 2011, with 17 "yes" votes and three members absent -- virtually a unanimous vote. That makes sense, since backers say it's a vote for the state's children.

But the bill has been in Stoltze's committee a full year with no hearing.

It would require the state to pay 15 cents toward the cost of each free and reduced price lunch and 35 cents toward breakfast, at a cost to the state of about $2 million a year -- less than what Stoltze is proposing.

The money would help local districts improve the quality of meals and ease the burden on districts that already subsidize the costs, according to the Alaska Food Coalition. School districts rallied around it. Backers hoped in particular to see school districts that don't already provide breakfast do so to help children who may be too distracted by hunger to learn or behave.

While Stoltze said in mid-February he'd hold a hearing despite his dislike of more entitlements, he said Monday that activists have hurt their cause with demands for a hearing and a vote. He won't cave into pressure, he said.

"I think it's very tough in this environment," Stoltze said when asked Monday whether he intended to hear the bill. "It's turned into a really political, almost Occupy Anchorage-type atmosphere."

He's talking about Kokayi Nosakhere.

Day after day, activist Nosakhere, 37 of Anchorage, and others have sat quietly in Finance Committee hearings on other topics -- Native languages, the Port of Anchorage, exploited elderly people -- hoping their presence makes Stoltze take up Senate Bill 3.

Nosakhere said he's occupying the committee room in a peaceful way, like Gandhi would have.

Stoltze described his occupiers as "serene."

Since Feb. 7, he has been on a hunger strike to force a vote on the bill. He's staying with friends in Juneau and is on leave from his job at Nine Star Education and Employment Services. He used to be an outreach worker with the Food Bank of Alaska and has advocated for people in need for years.

He first intended to occupy Stoltze's legislative office. Stoltze's staff got worried because Nosakhere has had some trouble in his past, including a 2005 misdemeanor assault conviction. Capitol security guards told him he couldn't occupy the legislator's office. He didn't make a scene about it.

"I'm not here to break the rules. I'm here to work within the rules," Nosakhere said. He said his past troubles mainly stemmed from "baby mama stuff."

As of last week, Nosakhere had lost more than 40 pounds. He said he's not going to eat until the bill gets a vote, the legislative session ends, or he dies.

"His approach probably backfired," said Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, who sponsored the House companion to Senate Bill 3. Stoltze's idea satisfies her, she said.

Other supporters of the Senate bill say they are encouraged Stoltze wants to make a $3 million state investment into school meals, but don't see that as the sole answer.

It's unclear how the idea would work with Alaska's short growing season, large number of rural schools, and logistical and shipping challenges, said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage and sponsor of Senate Bill 3.

"I think it's a good complement to Senate Bill 3," he said. "I certainly don't think it takes away the need for our bill."

Anyway, there's already a law on the books directing school districts to buy Alaska food if they are using state dollars, as long as the cost isn't too much higher, he said.

In the Mat-Su, Alaska's farm country, the school district buys as much local produce as it can, said Chris Johnson, Mat-Su's nutrition services director and a past president of the Alaska School Nutrition Association. After the fall harvest, though, the pickings get slim.

No one is processing Alaska potatoes to make them convenient for schools to use, and preparing raw potatoes is labor intensive, he said.

Carrots have a long shelf life, but school districts in Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su already buy all they can, he said.

Districts have tried salmon burritos. Kids in Anchorage and the Mat-Su didn't care for them, though rural kids liked them, Johnson said.

As to complaints that school meals aren't nutritious, that's not true, he said. And new federal standards will make them even better, he said.

Stoltze said he just wants to try a different approach and is willing to put money into his experiment.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 907-500-7388.

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