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The future of free student lunches is now in the hands of Utah schools and lawmakers

An employee prepares serving trays in the kitchen at West High School in Salt Lake City, April 1, 2022.
Jon Reed
An employee prepares serving trays in the kitchen at West High School in Salt Lake City, April 1, 2022.

Most Utah K-12 students are paying for school lunches once again this school year after getting free meals since March 2020. But some in Utah are working to make sure the free meals continue.

The federal program that allowed schools to feed all students during the pandemic expired on Sept. 30. Some states wanted to continue the practice and passed legislation to permanently make school meals free statewide, even after the extra federal money ran out. Colorado voters recently decided to join the list of states offering free meals to public school students.

In Utah, the Logan City School District and Ogden School District have decided to temporarily offer free school lunches to all students, regardless of their family’s income. However, both districts will only provide them for the remainder of this school year. When the 2023-2024 school year rolls around, students who do not qualify for free school meals will have to start paying again.

As director of support services for the Ogden School District, Ken Crawford oversees the child nutrition department. Crawford said there was enough money this year to cover the cost of students who would normally pay for school lunches, and while the district could have used the extra money for other things, like buying new kitchen equipment, it decided free meals would help families the most.

“I can't dictate what happens before school or what happens after school, and if a kid goes home if he's going to get fed or not,” Crawford said. “But I do know that if they will at least get in the line, they will get fed at least twice a day.”

Crawford estimated it will cost the district around $400,000 from November through the end of the school year to provide the meals.

“It's not something that is necessarily sustainable, we couldn't do it every year,” Crawford said. “But we felt, at least for the rest of this year, that we could do that and do something to try and help our families and our community out there.”

To keep the program going, Crawford said they would require additional funding from the state or federal government.

Before the Ogden School District announced this change, eight of the 18 schools in the district were already serving meals for free to all students because the schools qualified for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision. For a school to qualify, at least 40% of the students at the school must qualify for free lunch without having to fill out an application. Students at those schools will get meals for free even after this school year ends.

University of Utah professor of nutrition Julie Metos thinks providing free school meals statewide would help all students, not just those unable to afford lunch. Metos pointed to research that shows students who eat school lunches often have overall healthier diets than kids who do not.

“School meals are one of the only places where meals have to be balanced,” she said. “In order to get funded, they have to have a fruit, a vegetable, protein, those kinds of things.”

Metos said providing free school meals would also help students concentrate in the classroom and increase attendance. Before students take a big test, Metos said parents often get a note encouraging them to feed their child a good breakfast the morning of so that they are prepared to do their best.

“So just think what could happen if we did that for everyone all the time,” Metos said.

Metos recently worked on a study about how legislators, school board members and school food service directors view giving free school meals to every student and how much a program like that would cost Utah. Metos said the study is currently under review, but as a part of it, Metos and her co-authors spoke with 25 Utah state lawmakers.

“Broadly speaking, I felt like they were much more supportive than when I’ve talked to them in decades past,” Metos said. “There wasn’t as much anger or, you know, ‘you’re taking away the responsibilities of the family’ type talk.”

Some legislators thought the free school meals should be reserved for those who need them the most, but Metos added most were open to learning more.

In the 2020 legislative session, Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, ran a bill to require public schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to also provide breakfast. He said it received some pushback in the beginning, but passed in the end.

Johnson thinks a bill to make lunch free for all of Utah’s students will probably have a similar reception, but that the legislature would be open to expanding who is eligible for free school meals.

With the 2023 legislative session set to start in January, Johnson said he hasn’t heard of any bills on the horizon from his colleagues but that he has thought about opening his own bill regarding free school meals. Especially with inflation raising the cost of food, Johnson thinks it’s a topic that will come up.

“I cannot see us moving forward taking care of kids who are in need without talking about how they get fed each day,” he said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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