Looking Ahead at a New Issue - Universal School Meals

With the ending of pandemic era relief programs, we are experiencing the emergence of a constant challenge throughout Utah and the US, childhood hunger. A key relief program for families during the pandemic included the expansion of universal free lunch programs for schools, but the last of these programs are expiring. Here in Utah, according to research conducted at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, food insecurity affects 1 in 5 Utah children, with rates up to 1 in 4 children living in rural areas. With the expiration of these school meal programs, we can expect food insecurity and school lunch debt to continue to rise back to pre-pandemic levels. Already this school year, Utah families have accrued $1.7 million in school lunch debt, and, while no student is ever denied a meal, lunch debt can follow a student throughout their school careers, with the debt needing to be paid to receive a diploma (Fox 13, April 17th, 2023).

thumbnail_alt_text===Kids hands painted with the words school meals for all deserves a high five

The American Heart Association is a strong supporter of the most direct solution to these problems, Healthy School Meals for All, which allows children enrolled in a school that operates the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program to receive free breakfast and free lunch, regardless of their family’s income. Healthy school meals for all also negates the need for families to apply or schools to verify eligibility for the programs, removing barriers for families and simplifying the reimbursement process for school administrators. Five states have already passed permanent healthy school meals for all—California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

Utah certainly has the power to be the next state to implement this transformative, life-changing, and clear-cut policy solution to the plague of childhood hunger. With state leadership that prizes the family as an institution, strong advocates supporting policies to end childhood hunger, and momentum cascading in from states around the country, we should look forward to Healthy School Meals for All as a plausible solution to this ongoing problem, as we look back on pandemic era programs as a case study for their effectiveness. The Utah Advocacy team will be exploring all possibilities with this policy and hope to kick-off a state-wide effort in the coming months.


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