Utah students owe more than $1.7 million for school meals
Granite School District reported the highest amount of negative midday balances at $397,406.
Now that a pandemic-era relief program has ended, families in Utah are once again being asked to pay for their children’s meals at school.
Congress failed to renew a program that covered school meals for all students during the pandemic. The termination of this federal program is taking its toll on Utah families.
FOX 13 News submitted public record requests to each of the state’s 41 school districts, asking for the amount of unpaid meal fees.
Of the inquiries, 35 of 41 districts with a total statewide meal debt of over $1.7 million responded.
“We will never deny a student lunch,” said Matthew Sampson, spokesman for the Granite School District. “You get the same lunch as any other student.”
Granite reported the highest amount of negative midday balances at $397,406.
While no student is ever denied a meal, lunch debt can accompany a student throughout their schooling.
“There are no penalties, but to get that diploma you have to pay that debt when it’s outstanding,” Sampson said.
A nutritionist believes that high levels of debt are a sign of economic troubles amid rising costs for basic necessities.
“I think the majority have economic problems,” said Candace Parr, child nutrition supervisor for the Weber School District. “Some parents haven’t made the habit, but most struggle to make ends meet.”
According to the district, at this point in spring 2019 — the last year families paid for school lunches — the Weber School District had an outstanding lunch debt of $23,000.
Now that number is $83,000.
“It puts parents in a difficult position to be able to pay rent or pay for school lunches,” Parr said. “We are not debt collectors. We want to feed the children. We want to serve them good food and make sure they are ready to learn.”
Two school districts in Utah, San Juan and Ogden, reported no student lunch debts.
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 we could help them ease that burden a 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 Ogden School District’s Director of Support Services and Athletics.
Crawford reports that the district has seen a 5% increase in students eating meals at school. It’s unclear if the program will continue through fall 2023. Funding is the biggest hurdle.
“We’re going to look at our numbers and re-evaluate and see if it’s financially viable. Since we’re paying for this out of district funds, that can be a challenge,” he said.
A huge debt for student lunches prompts parishioners to seek solutions.
“There’s a huge lunch deficit,” said Amber Mackowiak, owner of Crazy Daisy Productions. “I think it would be fantastic if children didn’t have to take care of it.”
Mackowiak founded a nonprofit organization called “Hope Full” to donate the money raised to help defray the cost of unpaid lunchtime fees for Utah students — particularly seniors.
“We can’t turn away from that,” she said. “We know we can’t change the world, but we know we can help.”
Anyone who would like to donate can do so here. Families can learn more about applying for free or discounted lunch and other meals here.
Currently, six states, including California, Colorado and Nevada, offer free meals to college students.
Many other states have introduced legislation that would fund free school meals for all. Utah’s recently concluded 2023 legislative session contained no such legislation.
This article is published by the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of Utah news organizations dedicated to educating readers across the state.