Hungry kids aplenty, this elementary school in Kearns opened a new food pantry. Smith’s Food will help stock the shelves.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r The eyes of Ailie Spencer and Axel Godinez are as big as the ribbon cutting scissors, Tuesday, March 13, 2018 during a Smiths Food & Drug celebration and food pantry dedication at David Gourley Elementary School in Kearns, where 80 percent of the 646 students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Kearns • Education might be the great equalizer, but community leaders wondered aloud Tuesday if that sentiment holds true for Granite School District students with rumbling bellies.

Educators, government officials and business leaders gathered at David Gourley Elementary School in Kearns to cut the ribbon on the district’s 14th food pantry for students and community members. About 80 percent of students at David Gourley qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Granite Park Junior High principal Aaron Wilson said he had witnessed firsthand how much harder learning is for students who have not eaten, or are stressed about where their next meal is coming from.

“If you always felt some uncertainty in your future, it’d be hard to probably pick up a book and read or listen to something,” Wilson said during a panel discussion on childhood hunger that preceded the ribbon cutting.

One such student recently marveled to the principal at how much free time he has since getting access to a school pantry. The boy previously did all of the grocery shopping for his family and could name the price of each food item down to the cent, Wilson said.

An estimated 516 students will have access to the David Gourley pantry on a regular basis, said Aubriana Martindale from the grocery chain Smith’s Food and Drug, a leading partner in the program.

While food pantries are nothing new for Granite, where about 65 percent of students fall at or below the poverty line, the David Gourley pantry is the first to be sponsored by the private sector, said Martindale.

The company also pledged $50,000 to fund the pantry’s food expenses and operations over the next three years.

Salt Lake City School District currently operates 13 school-based food pantries through a partnership with the Utah Food Bank, according to district spokeswoman Yandary Chatwin.

That effort also supports 19 Kids Cafe programs, used to provide hot dinners to students in the district’s after-school programs.

The Granite Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the district, plans to use those three years to collect data on the Kearns pantry, including ages and family sizes of those participating, to see whether access to nutritious food affects academic performance.

According to Maria Sweeten, the foundation’s development director, if that information backs the theory that pantries improve performance, organizers will expand the project and partner with more local businesses.

Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this story.