Utah’s school lunch funding gets extended into March as the government shutdown continues

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children line up for lunch during their school day in Park Valley, Utah, in 2017. Funding for school breakfast and lunch programs has been extended into at least March as the government shutdown continues.

Federal funding for school breakfasts and lunches will continue into at least March — including feeding children at nearly 1,000 Utah schools — with a new temporary extension granted as the ongoing government shutdown stretches into a third week.

Money for the National School Lunch Program and other federally funded child nutrition programs was originally set to expire at the end of January. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced extra available funding Wednesday with letters to each state.

“How far into March that will now go, we don’t know yet,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Board of Education. “But I dread the day parents show up to school and the schools say, 'I’m sorry, but unless you’ve got a sack lunch, we can’t serve it because we have no funds to do that.’”

Utah receives about $16 million each month from the federal government to operate the school lunch programs. Because the meals are run through Agriculture — and not the Department of Education, which is funded through September — they’re the only education item impacted by the partial shutdown.

If the D.C. stalemate continues and the funding for school meals runs out, the state could step in and draw from its rainy day fund to continue providing food for students, according to the the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

Alisa Ellis, a member of the Utah Board of Education, suggested during a meeting Thursday that leaders also reach out to private businesses to explore potential partnerships to keep the lunches going.

“This is an opportunity where we can show, if it continues forward, the generosity of our state,” Ellis said.

One in 6 Utah children lives with food insecurity. The National School Lunch Program served more than 54 million lunches to students at 968 schools in the state during the last fiscal year, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education.

Of those schools, 867 also provide breakfast and 160 provide snacks.

Peterson said several districts, child care centers and charter schools have called with concerns about funding. They’ve received “a fair number of emails and phone calls just wanting to know what happens” if there’s no money.

“That’s a political decision that will have to be made,” he said.

It’s unclear how long the government shutdown — based on a standoff between President Donald Trump and Congress over funding for a border wall between the United States and Mexico — will go.

Already, staffing for the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services, which oversees the school lunch programs, has been cut by 95 percent since the shutdown, according to CBS News.

Utah State Deputy Superintendent of Operations Scott Jones said Thursday that workers in the state employed by Food and Nutrition Services to help schools will continue to be paid through May.