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Parents claim Billings schools aren't supplying enough food to students; district says otherwise

Serving pizza at a Billings school
Posted at 4:59 PM, Jan 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-15 12:27:43-05

BILLINGS — A Billings parent says her student is not receiving all the free and reduced meals he qualifies for at school, which a district official called a "misunderstanding."

Billings Public Schools serve around 13,000 meals a day to its students between breakfast and lunch. Almost half of the district eats school lunch daily, but one parent noticed her son wasn't getting lunch every day.

"He will eat anything. He’s not a picky eater,” said Sarah Alano, a parent of four, on Friday. "So when he says they’re out of food, they’re probably out of food."

Sarah Alano
Sarah Alano

Alano has four children in the Billings Public School system from elementary up to high school. One attends Will James Middle School and relies on school lunch for fuel.

"My son, in the last year, has at least grown four inches,” Alano said. “These kids, especially in middle school, they’re in the time in their childhood when they’re growing the most physically and mentally. They’re using more mental energy so they need the fuel for that because of all the stuff that they’re doing."

On Wednesday, Alano picked him up early from school for an appointment.

"He goes, ‘Mom, I’m like really hungry.’ He basically seemed like he hadn’t eaten anything all day,” Alano said.

Serving pizza at a Billings school
Serving pizza at a Billings school

He told his mom that he wasn’t served lunch and it wasn’t the first time.

"I was like, ‘Ok, how often is this happening?’ He said, ‘Sometimes close to every other day.’” said Alano. "My son is on the free and reduced lunch. So I don’t have to make sure, necessarily, that he’s got the money to get the food. He should not have to be expected to bring it."

Shocked and angry, Alano took to Facebook to share her experience and learned numerous other parents had the same concern.

Alano's post
Alano's post

"It’s not just Will James and it’s not just middle schools. I saw one that was somewhere in elementary school,” Alano said.

Commenters shared stories of similar conversations with their children. One stated her child goes to a different middle school, Castle Rock, but “The 8th graders eat last so by the time they get there there’s typically not much food left.”

Comments on Alano's post
Comments on Alano's post

"I saw one that said something about it basically running down to milk and fruit,” Alano said.

But the district said that’s not necessarily the case.

"We have multiple options every day, especially in our middle schools and high schools. If we do run short on one thing, we do have other options for those students to choose," said Sid Taylor, the district's nutritional director and the general manager for Sodexo, on Friday. "However, I get it. I want them to have what they want."

Sid Taylor
Sid Taylor

Sodexo is the school district’s food service management provider.

"Each day they prepare a certain amount. I wish there was a crystal ball so we could see like, we’re going to serve this many servings of pizza," Taylor said. "But unfortunately, you know, we go by our track record."

Sodexo tracks meal numbers and uses them to manage production and sends out surveys for parents to complete to take concerns into account.

"We got about 1,400 responses (from our last survey). The top three things that the parents said were areas for us to improve, one of them was increasing the variety of options. Which is great feedback, I like that,” Taylor said. “One of the other things was the amount of time kids have to eat... The final thing was the speed in which the students are served."

Milk
Milk

But Taylor is sympathetic and understands the frustrations some kids are feeling.

"If you go to a restaurant and they never have what you want on the menu, you’re going to stop going to that restaurant," Taylor said. "I don’t want the kids not to come and eat lunch with us. I want them there. So we want to make them happy."

Taylor assured parents their students are being fed, but said lunchrooms do sometimes run out of the more popular items by the time most students get through the line.

He wants parents to know if they have concerns or compliments, they can contact Sodexo.

"Contact us and let us know if there’s a problem," said Taylor. "But also contact us and let us know what we’re doing right."

Alano hopes this story will help to make a change.

"Maybe this will help parents be aware," Alano said. "Maybe more parents will ask their kids, ‘Hey, are you getting lunch at school?’ Instead of just assuming that they’re getting lunch."

Salad bar at a Billings school
Salad bar at a Billings school