Kokayi Nosakhere has dedicated his career to fighting child poverty and hunger in Alaska. He spent a year as an Outreach Assistant at the Anchorage Urban League, and worked four years as the Food Bank of Alaska Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator. But this February he took the fight to a new level, committing to a personal hunger strike in Juneau to protest the Alaskan state legislature’s failure to take action on a bill that would help feed tens of thousands of hungry children statewide. Here’s a video statement from Noshakhere:
Senate Bill 3, which would increase state funding for school breakfasts and lunches served to the 52,000 Alaskan children who qualify for free school meals, passed the Alaskan State Senate more than a year ago in February of 2011, with a nearly unanimous vote, and sent on to the State House.
If passed into law, Senate Bill 3 would require the state of Alaska to supplement federal funding for school breakfasts and lunches for children to the tune of 35 cents for each breakfast and 15 cents for each lunch. That’s less than the cost of a postage stamp per meal, but it would allow some Alaskan school districts that do not currently provide children with free breakfasts to do so. State leaders estimate the total cost of Senate Bill 3 to the state of Alaska would be a little over two million dollars a year — less than one tenth of one percent of the state’s 12.1 billion dollar proposed 2012 budget.
But in the State House, the Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee, Representative Bill Stoltze, has refused to allow the bill to leave committee for a full vote.
Stoltze, expressing concern that the school meal bill would create a “new entitlement,” nevertheless favors an alternate bill (yet to be written) that would use state funds to encourage Alaska’s schools to purchase local products, including seafood from certain Alaskan fisheries. Stoltze’s proposed bill, not specifically aimed at helping children who qualify for free lunches, would instead offer school meal programs credits to buy food from certain state-approved vendors. “There are vendors in Anchorage that are working on things, like salmon wraps they would prepare for the schools, much more nutritious foods,” Stoltze explains. It may not be a coincidence that Stoltze is a non-voting member of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute Board.
This week, the Anchorage Daily News reported that, after refusing food for nearly 30 days and losing over 40 pounds, Nosakhere — who had originally vowed to continue the hunger strike until the bill was brought to the House floor for a vote — finally gave up in the face of health problems including dizzy spells, chills and fatigue.
But it’s hard to call Nosakhere’s act of protest a failure. The hunger strike caught the attention of newspaper, television and radio reporters across Alaska, shining new light on the legislature’s refusal to act on a low-cost bill that could help save 52,000 American children from hunger. Studies show that children who eat healthy meals at school score higher on academic tests and behave better in class than children who eat low quality food or go hungry; many school districts have found that school meal programs pay for themselves, reducing the need for remedial education resources.
Just 50 cents per child per day could make a big difference in the lives of Alaska’s children. Representative Stoltze has called Kokayi Nosakhere’s tactics “extreme,” saying, “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.”
But the one in four American children whose parents can’t always afford to put food on the table do not get to choose whether or not they go hungry for a day. One quarter of all children going hungry in one of the world’s wealthiest nations could certainly also be called “extreme,” in the sense of extreme child hunger crisis.
A state legislator refusing to even allow a vote on whether to spend less than one tenth of one percent of a state’s budget on a school food program that could help alleviate that crisis? Also, perhaps, worthy of the adjective “extreme.”
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Photo credit: public domain