Sometimes, there is such a thing as a free lunch. And there should be. At least, for children who are hungry at school. In fact, they should get free lunch and breakfast.
But in Utah, many of them aren’t. And that’s more than just unfortunate. It’s immoral.
In many school districts in Utah, almost half of the entire student body qualify for free lunches. In some schools, that number rises above 90 percent.
Lillian Reed of The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that, “For seven years, the state has ranked last in the country for school breakfast participation, with about 39 percent of all low-income students who qualify for free or reduced meals taking part.”
That participation rate leaves more than $13 million in federal funding on the table. And it has been that way for a long time. In 2013 only one-third of low-income students who received free lunch also received free breakfast.
Last in the nation.
One reason students may not be signed up for the free breakfast program could be logistical. Breakfasts are served early before school starts, and if a low-income child arrives at school late, or doesn’t want to eat “with the poor kids,” then many won’t eat at all. Reed reported that states with the highest participation rates serve meals during school hours — in class or all together in the cafeteria after the bell has rung.
In 2015 Copperview Elementary started serving breakfast in the class after the morning bell and noticed a demonstrable improvement. Teachers noticed the students were more engaged.
Meals for low-income children are about more than just energy to learn and play. Meals also serve a social function. Adults often share meals together in order to talk about ideas or focus energy on shared goals. Plus, it’s relaxing and eases stress.
Utahns Against Hunger has paired with the Utah Breakfast Expansion Team to study the issue. They have at least five suggestions to improve the chance that low-income children participate in the program, including breakfast in the classroom, a grab-and-go option, purchasing breakfast with school IDs, serving breakfast after the first period and breakfast on the bus. All of these options are reasonable options for school districts.
Our priority should be that kids who are hungry have the opportunity to eat, without having to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. Sometimes it will take more than just asking who is hungry. If schools assume that each child is hungry and wants to eat, participation in the program could increase dramatically.
Last in the nation is not good. Let’s feed our kids.