Where can hungry Utah kids turn when school lunches shut down for holidays?

Districts organize pantries not only for food but also for winter clothes.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Isaac McDonald stocks shelves in the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Pantries will remain a resource for food for low-income students when schools break for the holidays.

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School breaks during the holidays can bring joy to a student’s world as the three R’s of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic give way to the three P’s: presents, play and plenty.

For some youngsters, though, the Yuletide recess brings empty bellies.

Many Utah students depend on free or reduced lunches — or food from school pantries — for their daily nutrition.

“It’s great that they’re able to establish these programs in the schools,” said Neil Rickard, child nutrition advocate at Utahns Against Hunger, “but if the kids don’t have access to the schools, then obviously they don’t have access to that food anymore.”

Depending on the school, the holiday break can start Dec. 19 and stretch to Jan. 6. During that time, pantries generally step up their game, serving hundreds of extra meals to close the gap, Rickard said. It is uncertain how many families will experience food insecurity during the holidays, but more than 645,000 Utah students qualified for free or reduced school lunches in 2021.

They won’t have access to those meals while schools are locked.

Some Wasatch Front school districts, such as Ogden’s, face a disproportionate need for school meals. A 2021 report showed almost 64% of its students qualified for subsidized lunches. Other big districts like Granite and Salt Lake offered the program to 44% and 47%, respectively, of their students.

Even wealthier districts have students who qualify and, in those more affluent areas, it can be even harder to find emergency resources nearby.

General tools

“To bridge these gaps when you have no school meal service, we need to see a lot more participation in programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps),” said Rickards, explaining that access to transportation, housing and other factors contribute to food security. “Things that aren’t necessarily connected, but they’re drawn from the same resources, either money or time for the families. And that ultimately impacts the food security for the kids. It’s all part of one big picture.”

The Women, Infants and Children program, which provides supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for moms and their kids, could also help families with children under age 5, but it’s one of the least used resources across the country.

Other nonfood helps include 50% off Utah Transit Authority rides for people with low incomes and those who are enrolled in other assistance programs. UTA also gives 10 free on-demand rides for their new app users in certain parts of southern Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City’s west side, Tooele County and south Davis County.

“There are a lot of resources that people in Utah could benefit from that, for one reason or another, they don’t access,” Rickard said, “and I would love to see those barriers fall.”

School districts resources

The Tackle Hunger map is one of the most valuable resources the Granite School District shares with families with food emergencies, said Jadee Talbot, executive director of the Granite Education Foundation. People can search for nearby food pantries by ZIP code to help meet their needs during the holiday break,

“Hunger is such a big problem that we know we don’t have the resources to be all the things to everybody,” Talbot said. “But there are tremendous partners that we have that run food pantries, even during the break, and we want families to be able to access those.”

The foundation also provides meal kits to families as they are getting ready to go on the break. For some households, every effort can make a difference.

“Probably more families are feeling the impact with all the different things that have been going on,” Talbot said, “especially inflation.”

Throughout December, community learning centers at Glendale and Rose Park schools in the Salt Lake School City School District organize food distribution events, said Yándary Chatwin, the district’s executive director of communications.

The food distribution events will be Dec. 15 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in Glendale and Dec. 19 from 2 to 3 p.m. in Rose Park.

The district will also offer SNAP outreach to answer questions about qualifying and applying for this benefit at the Glendale Learning Center on Dec. 13 and 20 from 1 to 3:30 p.m. The Rose Park outreach session will be Dec. 22 from 4 to 6 p.m.

The Liberty Elementary Community Learning Center also hosts a food pantry every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. A food distribution table is also open at all times for anyone facing food insecurity.

Ogden School District has the MarketStar Student Resource Center, which provides families a range of items — from school supplies to hygiene materials, clothing and food, said district spokesperson Jer Bates.

The center is open year-round and school counselors will be identifying households needing an extra hand during the winter break. Bates said the district also connects those in need with its partner, Catholic Community Services, which can provide long-term food assistance.

“We recognize that for many families in our community food insecurity is not just a concern during the holidays. It’s something that many of our families face throughout the entire year,” Bates said. “That is why we have a system in place to identify families who do have those needs, to help them either directly through resources within the school district or in conjunction with our community partners to help address those longer-term food insecurity issues.”

Reach out to principals

Schools in the Jordan School District have pantries that remain open on weekdays for those who are experiencing food insecurity, but they will close with the schools for the holidays. Families are encouraged to reach out to their schools before the winter break to access the resources. The district also identifies students who need extra help to provide weekend food packs, which include food items and snacks, said Sandy Riesgraf, the district’s director of communications.

“We recommend they reach out to their principals before winter break and let them know what that need is,” Riesgraf said. “And our principal pantries exist to help those families, and if that isn’t enough to tie them over with what we can give them, then they need to let us know so our principal pantry managers can reach out to local community support systems.”

Some district schools also organize cereal drives to distribute breakfast among students during the break. Winter clothing, such as coats, gloves and hats, also are available at the pantries.

“The needs this year that we’re hearing more than anything are for winter coats and warm clothing,” Riesgraf said. “So we’ve really pushed hard to get winter coats out there for students because we have a large refugee population in our district.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.