Thousands of Utah kids are going hungry during pandemic

Via onsite pantries, public K-12 schools are serving millions of pounds of food from the Utah Food Bank every month.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gia stands next to her mother Kajsa after picking up bags of food at Liberty Elementary in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

Kajsa can measure the impact the pandemic has had on her family by looking in her kitchen cupboard.

The shelves were filled when the coronavirus first hit Utah. And then August arrived, and Kajsa’s husband was laid off from his software job.

Eventually, as the Salt Lake City couple juggled bills and their savings ran low, they no longer had much money for any groceries, Kajsa said, and she worried about 7-year-old Anthony and 3-year-old Gia. She remembers opening her cupboard one day this summer and seeing it was almost bare.

The pandemic has exacerbated what was already a staggering need for food, and in Utah the growing demand is so great that in some places it’s going unmet.

“The ripple effect from COVID-19 has been enormous, but especially for those experiencing food insecurity,” said Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank.

One of the few bright spots, she said, is that schools have moved to the heart of efforts to get food to children and parents, like Kajsa’s family. “These school pantries are really doing a great job,” Bott said. “It’s been incredible. … People really needed somewhere to go.”

Before the pandemic, the Utah Food Bank provided the state’s residents about 2 million pounds of food a month. That has increased 300%, to 6 million pounds per month. K-12 districts are passing out most of the additional supply.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

With COVID-19, shelters and food banks are no longer serving hot meals for fear of spreading the virus, and some former pickup locations, such as libraries, are shut down.

Schools, which have typically been a place to serve kids meals during the day, are now the best way — even with some classes remaining online — to get food to families who need it, Bott said. The hot meals once served after school at Kids Cafes by the food bank, for example, are now given out by schools in microwaveable containers.

Without school pantries, “I don’t know what these families would do,” said Brent Severe, CEO of the foundation that supports Granite School District. “It’s kind of a sobering thought. No one wants to see a child go hungry. You envision that in a Third World country, not in your own backyard.”

One school food volunteer described a student who was in tears when he visited his school’s pantry for the first time and learned he could, as he said, take care of his family.

Schools that have stepped up to provide food believe their increased role in feeding children will become permanent, one legacy of the pandemic. Advocates who have long worked on hunger say it isn’t the role of schools to fix food security, and it can’t be.

Kajsa’s paychecks go first to the mortgage and utilities; “and after that, there’s not much left,” added the mom, who asked to be identified by only her first name.

For now, Kajsa can pick up breakfast and lunch each weekday for Anthony and Gia at the first grader’s school. And, each week, she can grab a bag of food at Liberty Elementary to take home for family meals.

As she and Gia walked to grocery pickup one day at the end of December, it started to snow lightly. Kajsa held tight to her daughter’s hand while Gia held tight to Baby Juju, her favorite stuffed animal. The mom said she’s incredibly grateful for the food services and the support they provide during the pandemic.

[Read more: As Utah schools step up to feed kids, advocates warn it’s not only their role to solve hunger]

The neighborhood solution

For those without a car, schools are easier to reach than community pantries. Teachers and administrators can see the needs of students daily. Families who may distrust the government because of their immigration status or because they are newcomers to the country are usually more willing to seek and accept help from trusted school staff.

Across the Wasatch Front, there is a higher demand for food since the pandemic began in nearly every district.

Those with more students in lower-income brackets — such as Salt Lake City and Granite District schools — have experienced the highest increases based on data collected by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Schools have continued to serve breakfast and lunch; in fact, every public K-12 school has offered both meals for free for all students with extra federal funding in response to COVID-19.

Even students learning online can pick up meals each day so they’re not cut off from a reliable food source. Kathleen Britton, director of child nutrition programs for the Utah State Office of Education, says this has been hugely important during the pandemic. And more families are relying on it, including many who previously did not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch but have been hit by job losses or illness.

“We’ve all come to realize how important nutrition is to students to learn,” she said. “And I think that’s been brought to the forefront with the pandemic.”

[Read more: Here’s how you can help those experiencing hunger in Utah during the pandemic]

The Nebo School District, for example, has served 68,000 more breakfasts and 90,000 more lunches from September to December than staff did for the same time in 2019.

There’s also a greater need for extra bags of food to support families at night and on the weekends. Schools and nonprofits have been providing those for years before the pandemic, but distribution has increased three or four times in many places.

‘So much more than normal’

The Salt Lake City School District is the only district statewide that has remained solely online this fall. But that hasn’t slowed demand.

It has distributed more than 1 million pounds of food from March, when classes first went online, through mid-December. For the same period in 2019, it passed out around 200,000 pounds of food from the Utah Food Bank.

Coming up with a plan to deliver food while educating students online was a priority for the district; staff will even deliver packages to families’ porches if they’re sick. Several helped walk with families who came to Liberty Elementary in December to pick up groceries, knowing it’d be hard to carry it all home without help.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Victoria Palauni, right, carries bags of food for a mother in need in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Palauni is the coordinator at the Community Learning Center at Liberty Elementary.

One volunteer walked a few blocks with a mom pushing a stroller. “I’ve got milk in there for you,” the staffer said. “And there’s some special truffles for the holidays.”

Maria, a mother of two whose kids attend Whittier Elementary in Salt Lake City, stood in line as a steady stream of cars filed in behind her. The single mom said she did not use the food services at the school until this year. Now, she relies on it to supplement what she can buy.

The staffing agency where she works cut back on her hours because of the pandemic, “and I’m not bringing in what I used to,” she said, also asking to use only her first name to protect her children’s privacy.

She was able to get two bags of groceries to get her through the two weeks her kids would be out of school for winter break. Her daughter, Ma’rya, in first grade, joined her for the pickup and was wearing all of the holiday clothes she could find, including a Charlie Brown Christmas sweatshirt and a Rudolph face mask.

Seeing the bag of sour cream and onion chips was like an early gift. Her eyes lit up when she saw them — her favorite flavor.

In the Salt Lake City district, 59% of students are considered economically disadvantaged. It has 21 Title I schools, meaning they’re in high-poverty neighborhoods. All of those now have in-house food pantries because of the need this year.

“The pandemic has taken it to the next level,” said James Yapias, director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation, the district’s philanthropic arm. ”We’ve just needed to provide so much more than normal.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The district has also distributed roughly $250,000 this year — a tenfold increase — in donated food from the Bishops’ Storehouse, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2019, the district used $25,000 of its products to give to its families.

The district also includes some of the ZIP codes, including Glendale and Rose Park, hit hardest by the virus. Yapias said he’s heard of families trying to decide between getting food and paying medical bills. Most, he said, have had one parent lose a job. Some have lost a parent.

Kajsa said her husband hasn’t been able to find a new job yet. And while she’ll be starting a second part-time job soon at a mortgage company, it still won’t put them close to what the family was making before.

‘Their cupboards were literally bare’

The Granite Education Foundation, which serves a district in which 54% of the 64,300 students live at or below the poverty line, has seen similar demand.

It started with one school food pantry in 2016. Now there are 25 permanent locations and another five schools that have rolling food pantries — a box delivered monthly with shelf-stable food kits for school administrators to distribute as they see fit.

Another five pantries are planned to open in January, due to the need.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

From September to December this year, the district’s existing locations distributed food valued at more than $160,000. About 3,000 students each month receive weekend kits (with three to four meals) or individual dinner kits. Last school year, before COVID-19 struck, nearly 1,900 students received those.

“We’re not even scratching the surface,” said Severe, the foundation CEO.

When school moved online in the spring, he recalled, a principal visited the home of a student who hadn’t been logging in. “Their cupboards were literally bare. She came and got food for them.”

But even some of the more affluent communities in the district have many families in need. One of the newest pantries in the Granite District opened at Olympus High School, located in the wealthier Holladay area.

Why Olympus?

“That was the first question we asked [Principal Stephen] Perschon,” recalled Jen Wunderli, whose kids attended Olympus and who now runs the pantry through her nonprofit, Friend-2-Friend, in conjunction with the education foundation.

“We didn’t realize how severe it was,” she acknowledged.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emma Bauman and Jen Wunderli transfer food donations to bags, at the food pantry at Olympus High, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.

Olympus’ pantry opened in mid-October and focuses on delivering fresh food, along with recipes, such as Hawaiian Haystacks and taco soup. Students from any of Olympus’ feeder junior highs and elementary schools can pick up grocery bags, which include enough to feed their families for a weekend.

Wunderli estimates 400 students from the network are food insecure; her organization serves 200 of them. She knows of 20 high school students who are working full-time jobs to help their families, she said, and she suspects that’s happening at other high schools as well.

One of those Olympus students, who moved to Utah from South America a year and a half ago, is quoted in a flyer seeking donations for the Friend-2-Friend pantry.

“The pandemic has been really hard on our family. My mom lost her job. … My dad works so hard, he just got his forklift operator license, but all his money goes to our bills. ...We are used to eating fresh fruits and vegetables, but cannot afford them.”

When the pantry opened, recalled Wunderli, “we had a couple of boys come down and start crying. One boy said, ‘I want to take care of my family.’ I broke down crying. We do have it [food insecurity] here. It’s here.”

Years to come

Every district contacted by The Tribune reported similar increases in need. While most have boosted their services, it’s still not enough.

Canyons School District, which serves the southeast part of Salt Lake County, has food and clothing pantries in 15 of its schools, and holds monthly food bank deliveries at six of those. East Midvale Elementary was sending home 75 winter recess bags — filled with groceries, toiletries and cleaning supplies — more than double last year’s 35.

And its food bank now serves 108 families, up from 69 over the past several months. “The need is more substantial and widespread,” said spokeswoman Kirsten Stewart.

Jordan School District, serving the southwest side of the county, has a principal’s pantry in each of its 63 schools, filled with food, clothing, school and hygiene supplies and weekend food packs. Steven Hall, director of the Jordan Education Foundation, said it doesn’t track the numbers, but the demand is “at least a third greater than it was last year.”

Davis School District in Davis County said the need has doubled there, as well, but it doesn’t have the resources to provide more than the 3,000 “pantry packets” it’s already giving to students weekly.

Alpine School District in Utah County anticipated the need and did a food drive to start off the year, collecting more than 26,000 items; a lot of that supply is already gone. At Mountain View High, the number of student visits per day to the onsite pantry has doubled, from 25 in 2019 to 47 in 2020.

(Photo courtesy of Alpine School District) Alpine School District administrators held a food drive at the beginning of the 2020 academic year for the school pantries where 26,604 individual items were collected.

Murray, Provo and Ogden districts all spoke of almost identical efforts and shortcomings. Murray is in the process of building two new school food pantries.

“We believe that in certain underserved neighborhoods the need for pantries is growing, and was growing, even before the pandemic,” said district spokesman Doug Perry. But “the pandemic has certainly elevated the situation in certain segments of the population and neighborhoods.”

Bott believes there needs to be other solutions in the long term. The immediate need for food — and for schools to help get it to Utah families — will remain heightened, though, for months or years after the pandemic. “It’s not going to end on January 1st because it’s 2021,” she said.

Yapias at Salt Lake City School District agrees: “This is for years to come.”

— If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com. This story has been updated since it was published on Jan. 1.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)