WHITEFISH, Mont. (CN) — Actor Jeff Bridges visited one of Montana’s poorest Indian reservations this week to witness how a campaign to end childhood hunger was working — and he came back impressed.
Bridges was in Whitefish, Montana, for the Western Governors’ Association conference, where he shared his goals for ending childhood hunger through his “No Kid Hungry” project. While in Montana he toured Browning, Montana, home to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Bridges started working on the No Kid Hungry campaign seven years ago in response to concerns about poverty.
“I felt it would be more effective to go to the states who are looking out for their own interests,” Bridges said. “I started to see significant results.”
Lisa Davis of the Share Our Strength organization, which oversees No Kid Hungry, moderated the discussion on childhood hunger with governors from 10 Western states, including Steve Bullock of Montana, Butch Otter of Idaho, Gary Herbert of Utah, Matt Mead of Wyoming, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, David Ige of Hawaii, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Ralph Torres of the Northern Mariana Islands.
“This is often an invisible problem in our community,” Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., said.
Bullock and his wife, Lisa Bullock, have worked to end childhood hunger in Montana by providing breakfast for students in Montana schools. They began a “Breakfast After the Bell” program funded with public and private money that now serves breakfast in 145 schools in the state.
“It’s not an economic issue, it’s a moral issue,” Bullock said.
Lisa Bullock appeared emotional when talking about the Breakfast After the Bell program, and explained how all people should be concerned with fighting childhood hunger.
“Food is part of my love language,” she said.
Bringing breakfast into classrooms and offering food to all students helps remove the stigma associated with being hungry, Gov. Bullock said.
Lisa Bullock added that anonymous “food fairies” put food in children’s backpacks during afternoon recess to take home.
“Hunger doesn’t end when school is out,” Gov. Bullock said.
Childhood hunger also has the attention of Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and first lady Kathleen Sandoval. The Sandovals felt compelled to address childhood hunger when they learned about a young student in Nevada who was filling his pockets with ketchup so he could make tomato soup at home.
“Even here in these United States, there are kids who are hungry,” Gov. Sandoval said.
The Nevada Legislature passed a bill in which schools must provide breakfast if 70 percent or more of the student body receives free and reduced lunches. A $2-million grant through the Nevada Department of Agriculture funds the program, so schools “couldn’t find an excuse to not do it,” Sandoval said. Currently, 109 of 111 eligible schools participate, and the $2-million state grant has opened the door to $10 million in federal grants, according to Sandoval.
“It was a massive multiplier,” he said. “I would encourage all the other governors to take a look at this.”
The breakfast program helps teachers by making students more attentive, especially during the mid-morning hours. “None of us does well when we’re hungry,” Sandoval said.
Bridges said he has seen the positive results of states’ efforts to fight student hunger. “It’s a bipartisan issue,” Bridges said. “How can we have a strong country if we have hungry kids? It doesn’t matter what party you belong to.”
Montana has 142,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Of those, 41,000 more are eating breakfast at school since Bullock took office. Schools on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, were at first reluctant to begin a breakfast program, Bullock said, but “Now it’s become a wonderful success.”
Bullock advised the other governors to push against resistance to this issue, and to “never underestimate the power of the bully pulpit.”
Sandoval said Nevada’s legislature at first saw childhood hunger as a parental issue, but then came to see the breakfast program as “another entitlement. It’s not the kids’ fault they’re hungry.”
Bullock, in his second term as Montana governor, said the childhood hunger program “has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this job I am humbled to hold.”
Utah’s Republican Governor Gary Herbert added that his state is teaching parenting skills and addressing poverty to fight childhood hunger. “With so much dysfunction in Washington, D.C., the states are the best vehicle for this issue,” Herbert said.
Bridges won an Academy Award for his role as down-and-out country singer Bad Blake in the 2009 film “Brave Heart.” But he said his efforts to combat childhood hunger constitute some of his most satisfying work. “The word patriotic comes to mind,” Bridges said. “It feels good to make our families strong, and our countries strong.”
Handing Over the Gavel
The Western Governors’ Association’s summer meeting concluded Wednesday with South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard taking over the chairman position from Gov. Bullock. Daugaard outlined his leadership initiatives, which are centered on educational systems.
“The Western Governors’ Association will identify the best path to align educational systems with the needs of the future,” Daugaard said. “Our states are laboratories of democracy, and we can learn from one another.”
The Western Governors’ Association also approved five policy resolutions this week. The resolutions address workforce development; species conservation and the Endangered Species Act; national forest and rangeland management; Western agriculture; and state wildlife science.