Many Utah students, particularly those in rural areas, often are left without access to their school's meal program during breaks in the school year. But a measure pending in Congress would extend federal food programs designed to fill in those nutrition gaps for families.
Approval of the program, called the Stop Child Hunger Act of 2021, would make pandemic-era pilot programs permanent to provide funds to replace meals during summer school breaks and unanticipated school closures.
Gina Cornia - executive director of Utahns Against Hunger - said unless lawmakers act, funding for these programs will expire at the end of the current school year.
"It's expensive to run those programs," said Cornia. "A lot of times, they're connected to summer school program. So if a district doesn't have a summer school program, they don't have a summer food program because summer school isn't all summer."
The programs provide families with kids eligible for free or reduced-cost school meals with an electronic benefits transfer - or EBT - card to cover meals missed when school is not in session.
Cornia said almost a third of all students in Utah public schools participate in one or more federally-funded meal programs.
"The last data that we have, which has been disrupted by the pandemic, about 29% of Utah kids get their meals for free or at a reduced price" said Cornia. "And that translates into more than 180,000 kids."
Cornia said the EBT program will help students with working parents or who live in rural areas without transportation to the school to have nutritious meals during breaks.
"This would really go a long way in not only addressing those gaps" said Cornia, "but giving families the freedom and the flexibility to buy the food that they want."
The bill has bipartisan support and is awaiting committee hearings in both the House and Senate.
Utahns Against Hunger does not provide direct food services but is a nonprofit agency that advises on public policy issues and advocates for federal nutrition programs.