Utah Senate panel passes bill expanding school breakfast

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) A student sips from a juice box at Copperview Elementary in Midvale in 2015. The school launched a breakfast program for students so don't have to be hungry during the day.

A bill that would expand breakfast at schools for kids who need it most passed in committee Monday — getting a surprise rehearing just days after Utah lawmakers had previously rejected the proposal, with one claiming that “parents should be parents” and take care of providing food themselves.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who chairs the Senate Economic Development Committee, said he heard from many who were critical of that vote and discussion last week and decided to revive the bill with some amendments.

“I appreciate the public’s outreach,” he added. “We learned a lot about the substance of the issues since our last action.”

The bill, HB222, had already passed in the House on a 51-20 vote but failed in the Senate committee Wednesday. Sen. David Hinkins led that opposition, questioning why the measure was needed when he believes parents should be providing meals — not the state.

“Parents should be parents,” the Orangeville Republican suggested at the time. “I mean, my mother fixed my breakfast; my wife fixed my kids’ breakfast.”

But the bill never asked for state funding. Instead, the breakfast program would be expanded entirely through existing federal subsidies. And it would provide food for students who already receive free or reduced-price lunch based on low family income.

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, the sponsor, said the idea was to make sure kids throughout the state have the option of getting breakfast at school when they might not be able to at home. There is significant evidence, he added, that students have increased focus and perform better when they’re not hungry or worried about their next meal.

It passed unanimously after reconsideration Monday on a 5-0 vote — with the three senators who had voted against it before, all on party lines, switching to support.

Hinkins added: “I think it sounds like a good program, and I’m curious to see how it’s implemented.”

Already, more than 1,000 schools in the state provide breakfast before class. About 90 don’t. Johnson drafted the legislation to help those schools and districts, mostly in rural areas, afford to set up a program.

All schools that already participate in the National School Lunch Program will now be required to expand and also provide breakfast. For those with a majority of students below the poverty level, they must specifically launch an “alternative breakfast” model to feed kids even after instruction time has started — so they don’t have to get to school early in order to eat.

Johnson said he’s seen a lot of kids go to school hungry and knows that many teachers provide snacks out of their own money to help feed them. “This is a difference maker for kids,” he added. “It will help them academically.”

The measure was supported by the Utah PTA and several school districts, including Canyons, which had a staffer speak at the rehearing. Utahns Against Hunger had also strongly backed the bill and expressed “deep disappointment” when it was previously voted down. On Monday, the group thanked the committee for giving the measure a second chance. It will be heard next before the full Senate.

“This legislation and the amendments provided by the committee will improve the lives of children across the state,” the organization wrote in a statement. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day for learning children.”