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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Office of Education on Wednesday announced new income guidelines for families whose children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school.
The policy is released prior to the start of every school year with income distributions adjusted for inflation. But parents won't see any major changes in the application process from last year, according to Kathleen Britton, child nutrition programs director at the Utah State Office of Education.
Last year, 53 percent of more than 54 million school lunches in Utah were free or served at a reduced price. About 12.4 million breakfasts were served, with 81 percent being free or reduced price. Statewide, about 37 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
But some school leaders are hoping more eligible families will take advantage of the program, which offers more than just lunch in some areas.
"People don't realize that those children can show up earlier and receive breakfast also. So if they qualify for free and reduced lunch, they also qualify for free and reduced breakfast," Britton said. "It's really important that people take advantage of this program. It's helped a lot of children."
Each household's size and income level determines a family's eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, which can include breakfast, a snack, free milk and lunch.
People don't realize that those children can show up earlier and receive breakfast also. So if they qualify for free and reduced lunch, they also qualify for free and reduced breakfast. It's really important that people take advantage of this program. It's helped a lot of children.
Families who already get assistance from food stamps, the Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations or the Family Employment Program are automatically eligible for free meals or milk. Foster children who are legal wards of the state, as well as children known to be homeless, migrants, runaways or enrolled in Head Start, are also eligible for free meals.
Some districts offer the application both online and as a hard copy, and parents can submit the application to their local school office at any time. Students who received free or reduced-price meals last year will continue to be eligible in the same school for up to 30 days into the new school year before having to renew their eligibility.
Federal dollars continue to have an impact in every school district and charter school in the state. Last year, federal funds contributed almost $150 million to child nutrition revenues in Utah, including more than $75 million going toward free and reduced-price meal programs.
In the Ogden School District, three out of four students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to Ken Crawford, director of child nutrition. Several schools are well above that average, such as James Madison Elementary and George Washington alternative high school, which respectively had 95 percent and 93 percent of their students on free or reduced-price meals last year.
At James Madison, every student was eligible.
"This provides an opportunity for a lot of kids who may be going hungry, they may not get a meal that day or it may not be enough," Crawford said. "We're able to ensure that all of our kids, if they're willing to take it, they can get at least two meals a day.
"It's a huge aspect of helping our students to get a better education," he said.
Crawford said he and other nutritionists across the country have found it challenging to keep up with federal regulations for school nutrition. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act since 2012 has required schools to adhere to new regulations, such as requiring every student to take fruits and vegetables, in order for meals to be eligible for reimbursement with federal funds.
It also includes finding new menu items with less sodium and more in whole grains.
"It has been a challenge to find different aspects of the menu requirements that the kids will like and that have good flavor," Crawford said. "Some of that is dependent upon the industry."
Other school districts across the Wasatch Front rely heavily on federal dollars to provide free or reduced-price meals to a high percentage of their students:
• Davis: 26 percent
• Granite: 51 percent
• Salt Lake City: 61 percent
• Jordan: 24 percent
• Canyons: 28 percent
• Alpine: 26 percent