Too many kids in Utah are hungry. Schools can help.


Schools are well structured to provide several interventions for hungry children, a new report finds.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students line up for lunch and learn the rules of school lunch at Butler Elementary in Cottonwood Heights.

Many of us consider ourselves food experts. We certainly know exactly what we prefer to eat after all. Food has also gained additional attention over time as it is and has been one of the drivers of recent inflation and perhaps one of the more palpable ones.

In response to elevated prices, many people turn toward cheaper and often highly processed food as a household budget release valve. Some may even need to purchase less food altogether. In fact, about 1-in-7 Utah households with children do not have enough healthy food to eat at home.

This reality brings us to schools. In addressing food insecurity, schools are well structured to provide several interventions for hungry children. First, children spend a large portion of the day in school and can eat while there. Schools can make sure that students that might live in food-insecure homes at least have one (perhaps more) meal per day while there. Second, with a school in practically every neighborhood, public schools often form the core of a community and are well placed to serve as food distribution centers. Finally, schools directly educate children regarding the importance of being healthy and focus upon which foods are most nutritious.

These are just some of the findings of a recent Utah Foundation report on food – Healthy Communities: Cultivating Food Access. The report explores the level of food insecurity in Utah and lists policies and programs that community groups are embracing to enhance food security for all. A few policies and programs stand out.

School breakfast and lunch

School meals are a very important part of many children’s diets, especially when healthy meals are not available in the home. Numerous studies show that students who eat a nutritious breakfast perform better, have better attendance and tend to behave better than students who do not eat a healthy breakfast. Fortunately, the Utah State Legislature passed the Smart Start Utah Breakfast Program to expand options for students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. However, only 40% of students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts actually use them – ranking Utah last in the nation for school breakfast program participation. Further, the Healthy School Meals for All effort (a continuation of a pandemic-era school lunch program that showed positive results for Utah children) would have provided free meals to those who qualify for reduced-price meals, but did not receive legislative funding.

School pantries

School food pantries offer another opportunity to support children and their families. For instance, in the Salt Lake City School District, the neediest of schools have an on-site pantry supported by the Utah Food Bank. Another alternative is the Food Bank’s Kids Café program which provides a mobile pantry. The Ogden School District highlights a third model in which a community created MarketStar Student Resource Center serves the needs of all students in the district. It is supported through community donations and corporate sponsors. Finally, schools can check out Get Healthy Utah’s Healthy School Pantries Toolkit for tips on forming their own panties.

School nutrition, farm and garden programs

In addition to direct food support, Utah has other programs for childhood food education. For example, the Farm to Fork program is focused upon connecting schools to agricultural education. The program’s goals are to offer universal agriculture education in Utah, to increase market opportunities for small producers, and to provide support for school nutrition programs. Wasatch Community Gardens also has multi-year curriculum programs at schools which are “focused on growing and eating food out of the garden.” Their staff works alongside teachers and students to install school gardens.

All of these programs are ultimately focused upon the future health of today’s children. Implementing healthy dietary patterns at a young age increases the chance of continuing consistent healthy dietary patterns into adulthood — which would be a win for our citizens and communities over the immediate and longer terms.

Level up your food expertise with Utah Foundation’s recent report. Then we can decide, as a community, which policies will ensure that our children have healthy nutritional options now and the education to make healthy choices in the future.

Shawn Teigen is the president of the Utah Foundation. He has worked there for over a decade — researching a broad swath of public policy issues. He also teaches a public policy course at the University of Utah. He serves as a board member for several public-sector, private-sector and non-profit organizations and has always been active in volunteering, including having spent two years in Kazakhstan with the U.S. Peace Corps.

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