Utah school districts plan to continue limited free meals when federal help expires

Apr 14, 2022, 1:58 PM | Updated: Jun 20, 2022, 1:22 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Federal meal waivers allowed Utah school districts to offer free lunch to all students during the pandemic, but that program is set to expire.

Without those waivers, Salt Lake City School District leaders said they’re limited on how to provide meals.

For example, this summer they’ll provide free meals, but only at some select sites and the fear is some kids in certain neighborhoods may be left out.

From March 2020 to April of this year, Salt Lake City School District provided more than 4.5 million free meals to all its students -regardless of a family’s income – as part of a federal waiver.

“Parents could come pick up their meals for children and take it home,” said Kelly Orton, the director of child nutrition for Salt Lake City School District. 

The program that Orton said benefitted families is ending on June 30. Districts across the state are scrambling to put a plan in place. 

“Children will get fed but the burden of the cost now is on the family and the school districts to make up that cost.” 

That means this summer, the district will only provide free meals at select sites.

“Many sites on the east side where we don’t have as high free or reduced population, they’re out of luck,” said Orton. 

Come fall, students who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch will have to begin paying for meals.

Orton said with rising gas prices and food costs, plus a labor shortage, the district will feel the pinch. 

“The ability to get food and the quantities we need it’s a struggle. We’re pulling from the same labor pull as the restaurants are and they’re struggling too. Other school districts around us.”

At Granite School District, more than 65,554 students are currently receiving free meals under this waiver.

Ben Horsley, spokesperson for GSD said that will continue through the summer, but in the fall students will also have to start paying for meals again.

Orton hopes the federal government will give the district a year to make the transition.

“For us to continue the school district will probably have to come and pay for some of these funds, taxpayer funds that would normally go to classrooms.”

Parents will need to fill out applications to see if their student qualifies for free or reduced lunch beginning this fall.

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Utah school districts plan to continue limited free meals when federal help expires