Opinion: It’s all of our responsibility to make sure no Utah child goes hungry

When food insecurity trickles down to children, we see the impacts at school and at home.

As we go through the holidays, most of us will deal with the stresses of gift giving and family gatherings. Some of us will be struggling with the added stress of looming bills or empty pantries. Regardless of our challenges, we all do our best to insulate the children in our lives from the worst of what we experience. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about adult problems.

Making sure that kids are well fed at school should only ever be an adult problem.

Unfortunately, there are serious gaps in kids’ access to school meals. The sharp resurgence in unpaid meal debt following the pandemic demonstrates how many of the kids attending school aren’t getting the support they need. Many people find the idea of school meal debt itself to be shocking — and with good reason — but its presence is also a symptom of a deeper crisis among Utah families.

More and more Utah families are struggling. Costs of living continue to rise, with housing costs as a major culprit. A survey from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition finds that the average income needed to afford fair-market rent on a two bedroom home in Utah is $51,861. Meanwhile, for children in a family of four to qualify for school meals, their annual household income would need to be under $39,000. Many Utah families occupy this intermediary income range, bearing all the costs of a shifting economy while being locked out of programs like school meals by poorly targeted means tests.

These economic shifts are huge challenges, but we cannot allow these crises to compromise our children’s well-being. When food insecurity trickles down to children, we see the impacts at school and at home. Children experiencing food insecurity also have higher rates of absenteeism, their focus and performance in the classroom suffer, and they experience higher rates of chronic health issues that can follow them for the rest of their lives. These are serious problems, but we have powerful tools to prevent them. We can make healthy school meals every day an island of stability for all the kids who just need a chance to do their best.

Expanding our school meals programs is not just a compassionate thing to do. It is also the responsible thing to do. It means that school staff can devote more of their time and budgets to programs, rather than hunting down unpaid balances. It means that the overflowing generosity of the communities banding together to pay their neighbors’ debt can be directed back to root causes and not symptoms. Most of all, it means that our investment in our children pays fuller dividends as they grow up to lead fuller, healthier lives.

When the holidays have come and gone, the Utah State Legislature will gather for the general session. Action at the state level can make a real difference for children across Utah. No one likes the idea of children going hungry. Our legislators are no different, but they also have plenty of adult problems on their plates. It’s up to all of us who care about the state of school meals in Utah to reach out and tell them that it is a priority.

Neil Rickard

Neil Rickard is a child nutrition advocate with Utahns Against Hunger.

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