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With pandemic-era meal waivers gone, schools turn to partnerships to feed students

School lunch is served at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Utah, part of the Alpine School District.
courtesy Alpine School District
School lunch is served at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Utah, part of the Alpine School District.

Federal meal waivers that helped schools keep students fed during the COVID-19 pandemic have come and gone. But districts remain committed to providing free meals for students throughout the summer months.

In Utah County, school districts are partnering with federally funded programs and food banks to make this happen.

Students 18 and younger in the Alpine School District are eligible for free meals through their summer nutrition program. Free breakfast and lunch will be available at ten schools from June 5 through June 30. While parents are welcome to take advantage of the meals too, adults will have to pay $1.65 for breakfast and $3.85 for lunch.

It’s possible because of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which funds Alpine’s program and the district provides the meals. In Utah, reimbursement payments for these kinds of school meal programs for fiscal year 2021 are estimated at $1,657,855. Preliminary figures from FY2022 show $572,013 was reimbursed to Utah schools.

Buffy Swensen, director of nutrition services at Alpine School District, said last year the district served over 1,700 meals.

"So our elementary school will probably do about 150 to 200 (meals a week). And then our high school, we have a high school and junior high and they will do about 200. A little bit more 250 (meals a week)."

Since Alpine's program is only four weeks long, they don't have a huge list of menu options.

"We have a one week cycle and so sometimes by like the third or fourth week, parents are like, OK, we don't really want corn dogs again this week. So that's where we usually see it will taper off,” she said. But with inflation still impacting costs at the grocery store, Swensen isn't ruling out the possibility of serving more meals.

“We might see people stay with us just for that month because our program is only a month, which goes by quickly."

Either way, Swensen doesn't anticipate a shortage of food.

"We usually know the enrollment of the summer school program that they do. So that helps us. But every child will get fed, regardless if it's what was on the menu scheduled or if it's something that they'll have to hurry to make and quickly serve."

In the south end of Utah County, Nebo School District works with the Utah Food Bank to serve meals to students across four different locations between Spanish Fork and Santaquin.

"We're not just about educating students throughout the year, but we also want them to be safe and fed even in the summer. And so it's really important that our students are getting the nutrition that they need," said district Communications and Community Relations Administrator Lana Hiskey.

The Utah Food Bank works with districts throughout the state to provide summer lunch meals. President & CEO Ginette Bott said they are expecting a slight spike in demand due to growing food insecurity in Utah.

"What we are seeing is that we’ll estimate 146,000 meals will be served this summer,” or, an increase of 20,000 meals from last summer. “So that tells us that there's a huge problem out there and a lot of kids need that help."

Bott said the summer months are a challenge.

"With school being out, that leaves a gap. A gap that's creating challenges for families, food budget, for accessibility to food, and also for needs and transportation," Bott said.

Nebo School District's summer nutrition program runs May 30 through Aug. 11.

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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