Now that a pandemic-era relief program is over, Utah families are once again being asked to cover the costs of meals fed to their children at school.
Congress did not renew a program that covered the cost of school meals for all students during the pandemic. The termination of that federal program is delivering a burden to Utah families.
FOX 13 News submitted public records requests to each of the state’s 41 school districts and asked for the amount of unpaid meal fees.
Of the requests, 35 of 41 districts responded with the total meal debt statewide surpassing $1.7 million.
“We will never deny a student a lunch,” said Matthew Sampson, spokesperson for the Granite School District. “They will receive the same lunch every other student receives.”
Granite reported the highest amount of negative lunch balances at $397,406.
While no student is ever denied a meal, lunch debt can follow a student throughout their school careers.
“There aren’t penalties, but in order to receive that diploma you will have to pay that debt if it’s outstanding,” Sampson said.
One nutrition specialist believes a large amount of debt is a sign of economic struggles amid soaring costs for everyday essentials.
“I think the majority is economically struggling,” said Candace Parr, the child nutrition supervisor for the Weber School District. “Some parents are out of the habit, but the majority of it is they are struggling to make ends meet.”
According to data provided by the district, at this point in the spring of 2019 – the last year families were required to pay for school meals – the Weber School District had an outstanding lunch debt of $23,000.
Now, that number is $83,000.
“It does put parents in a hard position of being able to pay for rent or to pay for a school lunch,” Parr said. “We are not debt collectors. We want to feed the kids. We want to serve them good food and make sure they are ready to learn.”
Two Utah school districts, San Juan and Ogden, reported zero student lunch debt.
The Ogden School District is using district funds to cover the cost of school meals for all students for the remainder of the 2022-2023 school year.
“We decided that if there was a way that we could help them to ease that burden a little bit to get them through the rest of the year, we would find a way to eliminate the cost of meals for the rest of the year,” said Ken Crawford, the director of support services and athletics for the Ogden School District.
Crawford reports the district is seeing a 5% increase in students eating meals at school. It’s unclear if the program will continue into the fall of 2023. Funding is the biggest hurdle.
“We will look at our numbers and reevaluate and determine whether it’s financially feasible. Because we are paying for it out of district funds that can be challenging,” he said.
A large amount of student lunch debt is causing community members to look for solutions.
“There is a huge lunch deficit,” said Amber Mackowiak, the owner of Crazy Daisy Productions. “I think it would be fantastic if kids didn’t have to worry about it.”
Mackowiak created a non-profit called “Hope Full” to donate all money raised to cover the cost of unpaid lunch fees for Utah students – especially students in their final year of school.
“We can’t turn away from this,” she said. “We know we can’t change the world, but we know we can help.”
Those interested in donating can do so here. Families can learn about applying for free or reduced lunch and other meal benefits here.
Curently, six states including California, Colorado and Nevada provide meals at no cost to students.
Many other states have filed legislation that would provide funding for free school meals for all. The recently completed 2023 legislative session in Utah did not include any such legislation.
This article is published through the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations in Utah that aim to inform readers across the state.