Opinion: After pandemic upheaval, we can’t let food insecurity interrupt learning
The free student meals during the pandemic are no longer — but why can’t we continue the policy? Students are struggling, and food insecurity is adding to the problem
“Welcome back to school” for the 2022-23 school year took on a new meaning for Utah students as they returned to the classroom for the first time in two years without COVID-19 restrictions and programs. However, while some students and families are rejoicing in the removal of mask mandates and the solid return to in-person learning, many families are scrambling to find funds for the return of school meal fees.
The loss of the federal pandemic relief fund that provided free meals to students has ended, and families are keenly feeling it. For two years, Utah students have benefited from the stability and security offered by free meals to nearly 700,000 students. Now many Utah families are wondering where they will find the extra income to afford school lunches this year.
There was certainly no confusion on who would be responsible for the school meals this year as students were welcomed back with flyers and consistent reminders that meals would not be free, and the old free/reduced lunch waiver has made a reappearance. In a time of uncertainty, free meals were a definitive security offered to students as parents faced the realities of the pandemic, inflation, skyrocketing housing costs and general economic uncertainty.
The world may be trying to force a return to normal, while most are still struggling with the same instability as when the pandemic started. One in every 7 children in our state are unsure of when their next meal will come from. Utah Food Bank distributed 58.5 million meals across the state last year, but reports that the number of families needing food assistance is not decreasing as their partner agencies across the state continue to see a rise in their local food pantry usage.
This uncertainty surrounding meals causes turmoil and food insecurity in our students. Teachers report an unprecedented number of behavioral issues in the classroom, and while a diversity of needs cause those issues, food insecurity can be a contributory factor.
Food insecurity is often correlated with poor mental health and distressing behavioral problems among children and teens. For example, food insecurity can be associated with apathy towards education, lack of internal motivation and lower levels of engagement in the classroom. Children struggling with food insecurity are also more likely to experience mental health conditions such as anxiety and irritability. According to the Food Research and Action Center, teens face a higher risk of developing depression, bipolar disorder and suicidal tendencies.
To minimize these harmful impacts, Utah should create legislation that will protect students. While many might say free/reduced lunch applications are the answer, they only serve to fill general needs, they fail to address individual families’ unique financial needs, and they lack cultural sensitivity for our growing diverse student population.
Earlier this year, California became the first state to pass a meal mandate that provides free breakfast and lunch to every public-school student, regardless of financial need. If California can produce a solution for its 6 million public school students, why can’t we find a solution for ours?
While a national policy would be the ultimate goal, in the state with one of the highest child per family ratios, Utah should take the initiative and be a leader. If there is anything that the pandemic has taught us, it is that things like this are possible. By meeting one of the most basic needs of our nearly 700,000 students, we can look forward to improving our educational environment.
Samantha S. Hutchinson is an embedded educational therapist Intern for Davis School District and a master of social work student at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. Opinions expressed are solely her own and do not express the views or opinions of her employer.