Waving signs reading “END CHILD HUNGER,” a small band of Juneau activists took to the streets on Saturday to protest the political gridlock they say is keeping a school meals bill from being heard in the Legislature.
The six to 10 people, including the group’s newly famed leader whose recent hunger strike has garnered press attention across the state, stood at the intersection of 10th Street and Egan Drive near the Douglas Bridge to make their message heard: schedule a vote for Senate Bill 3.
“All we want is for it to be heard and scheduled,” said Kokayi Nosakhere of Anchorage. “If we lost on the floor — OK, that’s democracy. But release it from committee so that it can go for a vote.”
Nosakhere, 37, who once weighed 260 pounds, hasn’t eaten in 19 days. He’s lost 35 pounds in 19 days.
“This is wrong what they’re doing, and somebody has to stand up,” he said in an interview Saturday. “I’m willing to sit here on a hunger strike and say you cannot do this in my America, you cannot do this. You must act right. Get in contact with your humanity.”
Senate Bill 3, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat from Anchorage, is an act to provide funding for school meals, and it would provide a state match for schools enrolled in the federal Free and Reduced Price School Breakfast and Lunch Program.
According to a statement online from the Senate Bipartisan Working Group, Alaska is one of the only states that does not supplement the federal program. Senate Bill 3 would provide school districts with a base amount of 35 cents for breakfast and 15 cents for lunch. The Anchorage Daily News reported that would cost the state a little more than $2 million a year.
It would help thousands of Alaskan schoolchildren, Wielechowski said in a sponsor statement.
“Currently in Alaska, twenty percent (20%) of schools participating in the school lunch program do not offer school breakfast, impacting 22,253 Alaskan children, 6,850 of whom are children from low income families who qualify for free or reduced price meals,” the statement reads.
The bill, which passed the Senate in February of last year, has been pending in the House Finance Committee since March of last year. That committee is co-chaired by Republican Rep. Bill Stolze, whom Nosakhere is challenging to set a hearing date for the bill.
“What’s so bad about a school meals bill that they don’t want to release a school meals bill for a vote on the floor?” Nosakhere asked. “Just let it out of committee — that’s all we’re asking for.”
He added, “The demand is not to arm wrangle him, the demand isn’t to take his ego from him, the demand isn’t to take his chairmanship, the demand is do your job and just process the bill.”
Nosakhere — who allows himself to drink four ounces of juice in the morning and in the evening at the imploring of his friends and family who fear the hunger strike will lead to brain damage — and other activists in Juneau have been sitting in House Finance Committee meetings for the past week. He says he’s met with numerous legislators on the issue, but says his request to meet with Stolze has been denied four times already.
“On Monday, I’m going to go to his office and sit there and wait on him for a meeting,” he said.
Juneauite Christina Mounce, who helped organize Saturday’s protest, has been sitting in those committee meetings too and has been frustrated the bill hasn’t been given a higher priority.
“They’re addressing things like film tax initiatives and we’re going to change who the Alcohol Board answers to, but this isn’t up for debate yet,” she said. “This isn’t scheduled. It’s going to die in committee if it’s not, and that really bothers me that I’ve been seeing things that I think are kind of lower priorities than feeding our kids than going up before this, and nobody’s provided an explanation. So people are just left to speculation.”
By 2015: AMERICA Movement, which is what the group calls themselves, speculates the bill is being held hostage in exchange for oil company tax breaks.
“They’re holding up a whole lot of bills for House Bill 110,” Nosakhere said.
That bill would overhaul Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, or ACES, Act, and lower the amount of taxes oil producers pay by as much as $2 billion a year.
Stoltze told the Anchorage Daily News he is not holding the bill up in exchange for support for lower oil taxes, but has concerns the measure would create a new entitlement. He told the Anchorage paper he plans to hold a hearing on the bill during the current legislative session.
Whatever the reason, protestor Mukhya Khalsa, 57, said she wishes people would stop playing politics with the issue.
“There’s bipartisan support for it,” she said. “... It’s feeding children. It seems really important, and it seems like something you should not play political games with. Stoltze has publicly said, been quoted as saying, that people have concerns, other legislators have concerns about the bill becoming an entitlement. Well if they have concerns, then let them vote on it.”
Juneauite Jasmine Darrah, 26, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s just the most important thing in our state is to feed our children,” she said.
Wielechowski introduced a similar bill four years ago in 2009 that did not pass.
To read more about the By 2015: America movement, visit kokayi137.wordpress.com. To read the text of SB 3, visit bit.ly/wczWVz.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.