‘When kids have food, they’re not as worried’: Schools see many benefits from free-lunch-for-all program

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ST. GEORGE — The Department of Agriculture announced in 2020 that all students would be eligible for free lunches throughout the 2020-2021 school year. The move was taken to help families who may have been struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but recently, the USDA extended the free lunch program through June 2022, allowing school districts to offer free lunch to all students for another year.

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Principal Andrew Burt oversees Gateway Preparatory Academy in Enoch. Burt said that despite the numerous challenges of the past year in the education field, the expansion of free lunch programs has benefitted students and staff alike.

“It reduces a lot of anxiety,” Burt said. “And from a school perspective, it helps with behavior issues related to being hungry. … It really allows school communities to focus on things that they want to, as opposed to trying to figure out these other realms that aren’t education.”

As a public charter school, Gateway Preparatory Academy usually provides meals through a combination of public funding from state and federal sources and through lunch sales.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the same was true for all public schools across the state, with free or reduced-cost lunch made available based on the income level of a student’s family.

Around 60% of the students at Gateway Preparatory qualify for free or reduced lunch under the pre-pandemic criteria, Burt said, adding that having free lunches available to every student has also helped alleviate the “have or have not” stigma previously associated with certain students getting free lunches based on income levels.

According to Utahns Against Hunger – a nonprofit organization based in Salt Lake – the proportion of students that qualify for free or reduced lunch in Southern Utah is significantly higher than the statewide average.

In the Washington County School District, around 42% of students qualify for free lunch by state standards.

Mike Carr, a student services coordinator and homeless liaison for the Washington County School District, echoed Burt’s sentiments and said that meeting student needs like shelter, security and food has to come first to prepare for success in the classroom.

“When kids have food, they’re not as worried about things,” Carr said. “If they’re getting those basic needs met, they can learn better, and they can really focus on learning.”

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Neil Rickard, child nutrition advocate with Utahns Against Hunger, told St. George News there are also benefits to students’ health and well-being outside of the classroom.

“Kids who are fed routinely or who don’t miss meals are not just immediately in better health but are less likely to develop chronic health conditions later in life,” Rickard said. “And that can be things like heart disease, diabetes or stress-related chronic illnesses that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.”

Sometimes students rely on the meals available through the school system to get by as their main source of nutrition. Part of Rickard’s advocacy involves expanding breakfast programs throughout the state to increase students’ access to food.

He said that statewide participation in broader nutrition programs has historically been low, but advocacy groups like Utahns Against Hunger are using the opportunity provided by the pandemic funding and the awareness generated by school closures to reemphasize sound nutritional principles.

The increased availability of funding has led some local schools, including Gateway Preparatory Academy, to also consider how they can upgrade their school lunch menus.

“We want to think about how we can be innovative and try new things,” Burt said. “We’re getting ideas from classroom teachers to start planning for meals next year. They’re going to have the input to say, ‘We’re studying this culture, and it’d be great to have a meal where we could discuss that.’ We want to have meals that are tied to the curriculum.”

Where to find lunch during summer break

Free meals for kids will still be available throughout Southern Utah during summer break. The Cedar City Summer Lunch Service Program will provide meals Monday through Friday beginning June 1 and running until Aug. 13. Meals will be available for pick-up or to eat onsite at Main Street Park from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., or at Enoch Elementary School from noon – 1  p.m. For menu information and for updates, visit the program’s Facebook page.

In this 2020 file photo, food service workers at North Elementary School hand out sack lunches in the drive-up line, Cedar City, Utah| Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The Washington County School District will be providing free lunch to students at the end of each day of summer school. Free lunches will be available to any and all students at six additional sites, including Red Mountain Elementary School, Hurricane Community Center, Washington City Veterans Park, Legacy Elementary School, Paradise Canyon Elementary School and Washington Elementary School.

Beginning June 1, the Utah Food Bank will provide weekly meal boxes to children 18 and under at nine locations around Washington County. Each box – served via a drive-through process – contains 14 nonperishable meals for breakfasts and suppers. More information is available on the Utah Food Bank website.

The following are locations in Washington County where the food bank will be delivering weekly meal boxes, along with the scheduled delivery days:

  • 4 Points Clinic – Shivwits Reservation, 6060 W. 3650 North, Ivins (Wednesday)
  • Coral Canyon Elementary School, 3435 E. Canyon St., Washington City (Monday)
  • Fossil Ridge Intermediate, 3835 S. Mall Drive, St George (Thursday)
  • La Verkin Park, 300 N. State St., La Verkin (Monday)
  • Panorama Elementary School, 301 N. 2200 East, St George (Thursday)
  • Sandstone Elementary School, 850 N. 2450 East, St George (Tuesday)
  • Sandstone Park, 600 N. Bluff St., St. George (Friday)
  • Sunset Elementary School, 495 Westridge Drive, St. George (Friday)
  • Tonaquint South Park, 1851 S Dixie Drive, St. George (Tuesday)

Ed. Note: Information about the summer lunch programs in Cedar City and Enoch was added to reflect the correct time and date lunch will be available to students during summer break.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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