SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – In the nine months since schools closed, one of the widest-felt impacts of losing in-person school, has meant thousands of children losing two meals every day.
When schools closed in March at the start of the pandemic, more than in-person learning stopped. So did in-person lunch, and in some cases, breakfast, for thousands of Salt Lake students.
“The national school lunch program is so important to so many students and so many families,” said concerned parent Jamie Slack.
Slack has worked for 15 years with the U.S. Agriculture Department, the agency that oversees the school lunch program. She’s also a parent in the Salt Lake City School District.
She said many school children experienced food insecurity at home – there’s not enough to eat. There are students whose only square meal in a day is at school.
“If they don’t have those meals, many times they are going hungry and have nothing,” Slack said.
Districts also know this. They scrambled to continue providing grab-and-go sack lunches during the pandemic at various places in the community, each day, even through the summer.
“With the federal waiver now on the meal program, everyone is able to get a free meal,” said Yandary Chatwin, executive director of communications and community relations for the district.
With more children studying remotely – and not in the school building for lunch – have those meals actually making it to students who need them?
KSL TV submitted a government records request to the Salt Lake District and found in October 2019, the district served 260,756 lunches, more than 13,000 every day.
In October 2020, they served not even half that – 99,584 lunches – about 4,500 a day. That’s a difference of roughly 8,500 meals every day.
If you figure in meals served to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch,
more than 6,000 food insecure students aren’t eating what they did the year before.
Chatwin said the district has been taking meals to the students.
“We provide meals in the courtyard of apartment complexes to make sure kids are getting the food they need,” she said.
Chatwin said they’ve been working to get food to families in multiple ways.
For example, at their “Kids Cafe” program, students can come to a school, or parents can come to the drive-thru, and get a sack lunch, breakfast and bags with food for a couple of dinners.
“It’s been a really big boost to families that have been hit so hard economically during the pandemic here in Salt Lake,” said Chatwin.
Slack said she was still concerned about the kids at home during the day who can’t or won’t face the stigma of walking to a community center for food.
Her solution – pushing the district to return to learning in the classroom – has become a source of contention in a district where the impact of remote learning has been increasingly under the spotlight.
“Yes, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but they can safely open schools,” she said. “Every school district in the state has figured out a way to do that.”
A decision about when students will return to class was expected to be made after the new year.