SOUTH SALT LAKE — A new program will offer fresh, healthy food to families in need in the Granite School District, which officials say has faced an ever-growing issue of food insecurity with the COVID-19 pandemic's progression.
Over 35,000 students and their families in the central and south Salt Lake County school district — more than half of the district overall — live at or below the federal poverty level, district leaders said.
"The need already existed before COVID, about 54% of our students are on free or reduced lunch, so before COVID the need was there," said Kim Oborn, food program coordinator with the Granite Education Foundation.
"With COVID, the need has grown with families needing more assistance, and the challenges of trying to serve the families through COVID was complicated, as many of our pantries were closed. But we still found ways to make that happen. There's been a lot of requests to have fresh food items and other things, so we tried to listen to those requests and kind of add a little more variety, add some healthy options to give to our families," Oborn said.
The Granite Fresh Food program — made possible in part by commercial freezers and refrigerators purchased with emergency pandemic funding — will for the first time bring perishable staples like milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, beef and chicken to 19 participating Utah schools.
And Oborn says any family with students in the district is eligible — no proof of need will be required to pick up essential groceries at a school.
Granite's food assistance program began several years ago and has grown a bit each year, Oborn said. But a "huge" amount of growth happened within the past few years.
"We've really tried to add to our food pantries and to our options and tried to serve more students and schools," she said.
Last year, the program provided food to between 8,000 and 10,000 people each month during the school year. Families can come in to pick up food once per week.
"There isn't any restrictions or qualifications for a family, and in many instances we will serve any student at the school. ... They will come sometimes just to pick up a snack after school, if they're staying for a sporting or sport practice or other event, so it's really just geared to meeting the needs of the students and families within Granite School District," Oborn said.
Before the new Fresh Food program, the food assistance program offered some fresh food stored in pantries or unused classrooms but the capacity for storing perishable food was limited. After purchasing the new refrigerators and freezers with a grant, the Granite Education Foundation spent the last several months designing the new donor-funded program.
Oborn is working with grocery stores like Smith's and Sam's Club, food distribution company Sysco, as well as the Bishops' Storehouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"So they are all helping," she said. "I've made purchases through each of these organizations to buy the items that we're putting in our fridges and freezers."
The program, Oborn said, aims to decrease barriers for families to eat healthily.
"Part of that challenge for those with food insecurity and coming to food banks is the limits on fresh food and delivering that fresh food, worrying about the fridge and freezer and ensuring that it's at proper temperatures is a challenge, and so by increasing the items that we're providing, it will allow our families to have options when they're preparing meals more than a can of soup or a box of mac and cheese," she said, adding that, even when making boxed macaroni and cheese, one still needs butter and milk.
"And so adding these extra options really will allow our families to have an opportunity to make healthier meals, to make good, healthy choices, to have fresh food. We'll be adding some produce into those options, and simply adding eggs provides a lot of options for families with baking and/or cooking. Many different cultures use eggs in their dishes, so that's one of the main items that we'll be adding into our fridges and freezers," Oborn added.
To her knowledge, the program is one of the first of its kind.
Many school districts offer nonperishable food assistance to families or work with community pantries to serve their students, but challenges with storing and distributing perishable food make programs like Granite's fresh food initiative less common.
"We're kind of just figuring things out as we go along," Oborn said.
United Way is helping recruit and bring volunteers to help sort and load the produce when it gets delivered on Wednesdays to the district's warehouse each week. Shipments then go on two refrigerated trucks to each participating school on Thursdays.
Anyone interested in receiving food from the program will find "nonjudgmental" help, Oborn said.
"We're not here to determine who's in need, we're just here to serve and to provide the food, so they can focus on their academics, on getting to school, on doing well and for them to accomplish their goals and move forward in life," she said.
"If we can normalize the food pantry and just make it part of the structure of the school, then it kind of takes away the stigma that exists with food pantries, and friends will be like, 'Let's go down to the food pantry and see what they have.'"