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Libraries in Catch-22 over free lunch program

Some free summer lunch programs face a dilema
vaaseenaa/Getty Images
Some free summer lunch programs face a dilema

Bozeman, and a handful of other Montana cities, are facing a unique problem - too much money to feed those in need.

Bozeman, and a handful of other Montana cities, are facing a unique problem - too much money to feed those in need. Yellowstone Public Radio’s Orlinda Worthington explains the predicament.

The popular adage “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is proving true for the Bozeman Public Library’s summer program.

“At the library, we really see food security as integral to all kinds of learning and well being for our patrons and our community. I always kind of think you know you can't be thinking about reading novels or doing science or doing art projects if you're hungry, right?”

That’s Ellie Newell, the Youth Services Department Head for the library. After years of providing free lunch to kids during their free summer programs the library is now considered to be in an area too affluent to qualify.

“So the eligibility for the free lunch program is determined on a federal level and then through OPI here in Montana and then obviously lots and lots of different host agencies and individual Montana towns,” Newell said.

The host agency in the Bozeman area is the Human Resource Development Council. Jill Holder is their Food and Nutrition Director. She says to qualify for free lunches, an area must have a certain number of families who sign up who meet a percentage of the poverty level. Right now, there are not enough families under that poverty line signing up for the library’s free summer lunches.

“What we’re seeing a lot in our area is that people are making decent wages, and so they’re not necessarily hitting that free and reduced price eligibility,” Holder said. 

Holder says that does not mean all families in Bozeman have enough money to meet their needs, even if it might look like it on paper.

“For example, if somebody's making $3000 a month, but all of their money is going towards housing, they still don't have enough, you know, for food,” Holder said.

Newell says there are six other sites around Bozeman that still offer free summer lunch programs, but the exclusion of the library is especially troubling.

“And it is really hard because of course we think of libraries as being the ultimate melting pot of all people,” Newell said.

She encourages people to volunteer at sites that are open, and to contact those who can change the requirements.

“I think certainly always letting our elected officials know that this is an important aspect to our community and just let them know that it's needed.”

In Billings, I’m Orlinda Worthington.

Orlinda Worthington hosts “Morning Edition” weekdays on YPR. She brings 20 years of experience as Montana television news anchor, producer, and reporter.