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Utah food banks might have to pick up the slack if federal school meal waivers expire

Employees and volunteers in the Salt Lake City School district gathered food and supplies to distribute to families as the pandemic began, March 20, 2020.
Jon Reed
Employees and volunteers in the Salt Lake City School district gathered food and supplies to distribute to families as the pandemic began, March 20, 2020.

There are lots of federal rules around providing school meals, many of which went away during the pandemic. Without them, schools were able to offer every student a free meal, regardless of income. There was also a higher reimbursement rate, which helped cover the rising cost of food and additional pay for overworked staff.

Despite school nutrition managers pleading for the waivers to remain in place, the federal government appears unlikely to extend the program for another year, even as supply chain disruptions and inflation remain significant challenges.

Utah school districts will continue to offer free and reduced school lunches to kids up to 18 years old this summer, as they normally do. They'll just have less funding and more restrictions than they have had over the past two years.

Students, for example, will have to pick up the food themselves and eat it on campus instead of being able to take it home for later. That will almost certainly be a barrier for anyone who lives farther away, according to Sebasthian Varas, child nutrition director for the Canyons School District. Only four locations — all Title I schools — will be serving meals this summer.

“What I hear from families is, ‘It's not worth it with the gas prices just to go get a meal,” he said.

With the rules reinstated, Ginette Bott, president of the Utah Food Bank, anticipates schools will serve about a third of the students they have compared to the last two summers. Many families, who may be making tough choices about which necessities they can afford, will likely turn to food pantries for help, she said.

Demand at food bank locations hasn’t let up since the initial pandemic surge, first as many people lost jobs or had to cut back hours and later as inflation drove up prices. Before the pandemic, the food bank distributed close to 45 million pounds of food each year. It has now gone up to around 70 million pounds with few signs of slowing.

“It's going to take some time for these families to recoup from the combination of pandemic scenarios and then inflation,” Bott said. “So then we look at the waivers and the impact to children … for a lot of kids, those are the only two meals a day they were receiving.”

The pandemic has forced the organization to become more efficient but she still urged anyone who can afford it to donate their time as a volunteer, additional food or money. That will go a long way toward helping families in need this summer.

Her biggest concern though is the cost of fuel, which added more than $160,000 to her budget this fiscal year alone.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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