Utah school districts plan to continue offering limited free lunches when federal aid expires

Workers prepare lunch for a school in the Salt Lake City School District. (Derek Petersen, KSL-TV)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Federal lunch waivers have allowed Utah school districts to provide 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 were limited on how to provide meals.

For example, this summer they will provide free meals, but only at certain selected sites and the fear is that some children in certain neighborhoods will be left out.

From March 2020 through April this year, the Salt Lake City School District provided more than 4.5 million free meals to all of its students — regardless of family income — under a federal waiver.

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

The program that Orton says has benefited families ends on June 30. Districts across the state are scrambling to put a plan in place.

“Children will be fed, but the cost burden now falls on families and school districts to offset that cost,” Orton said.

This means that this summer, the district will only provide free meals at certain sites.

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

In the fall, students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch will have to start paying for meals.

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

“The ability to get food and the quantities we need is difficult. We are drawing from the same pool (of labor) as the restaurants and they are also struggling to find people. Others school districts around us.”

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

Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley said this will continue through the summer, but in the fall students will also have to start paying for meals again.

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

“In order for us to continue, the school district will likely have to come in and pay some of those funds out of taxpayer funds that would normally go into classrooms,” he said.

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

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