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MILLCREEK — Food security for families has fallen on some of the smallest shoulders at Millcreek Elementary School.
Children will eagerly wander the school's food pantry with oversized backpacks and bags to bring the basics out to their waiting families.
"We talk adult talk all the time, but you need to talk in real terms of families and what this means for them," said Amber Clayton, principal at Millcreek Elementary. "The pressure is on families, and we need to make sure we are sharing, that resources are here in the community and the community cares.
"Just know that every box of macaroni and cheese is going to feed some kiddo that might not have had anything else."
The Millcreek Elementary Pantry has seen an increase of 10 to 20 families per week, according to Kim Oborn, program coordinator for the Granite Education Foundation. The pantry was one of three that remained open for Granite School District families over the course of the summer.
The Granite Education Foundation, the nonprofits Bread for the World and United Today Stronger Tomorrow, and Millcreek educators gave congressional representatives a tour of the pantry on Wednesday to demonstrate the need for more funding and food.
The nonprofit operates seven similar pantries across the district and 28 schools have some sort of food program. The second largest school district in the state, Granite houses more than 64,000 students. Of those students, 54% live at or below the poverty level and 3.25 of 5 students are "food insecure."
The pantry and school district provide a local view of a nationwide problem.
Feeding America — the largest network of food banks, which includes the Utah Food Bank — reported that 65% of member organizations saw an increase in need from May to June. While needs have increased, cash donations for the national office fell nearly one-third from the year earlier, according to the New York Times.
"That is a recipe for a lot of gaps, my friends, and we are here to talk about the gap. When children are hungry they cannot focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. When children are hungry they cannot learn social skills," said Rev. Brigette Weier of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Holladay. "We know with inflation on the rise, with gas going up, with housing skyrocketing, families are struggling. Working families are struggling, families that have every possible adult working need help."
Inside the pantry, shelves that had been stocked a day prior were beginning to look bare.
"I have had more and more families that would have been firmly entrenched in the middle class; but with COVID and everything that's happened, they will come to me and ask, 'Would it be OK if I used the pantry, too?' That's where we are right now," added Clayton.
The church and its congregation support the Millcreek Elementary Pantry through donations and volunteers. The pantry operates on food donations locally, as well as with donations from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Utah Food Bank. Some items not often included — such as cleaning supplies or hygiene products — can come from corporate partnerships.
"This might not be how we imagined our vision of schooling in the 1950s, but it is a reality in 2022 that schools need to be involved in the health care of our children, in the wellness of our children and our families. So, we really had to expand our definition of what schooling looks like," said Clayton of the pantry.
While the pantry receives support from several places, advocates called on elected officials to enact congressional change. Weier acknowledged the extension of the Child Nutrition Waiver to aid families during COVID-19 and the Child Tax Credit.
The Child Tax Credit when passed allowed 3.2 million children to be lifted out of poverty nationwide. However, at its expiration in December, 4.2 million children reentered poverty, said Weier. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has introduced the Family Security Act 2.0, which features similar relief for families as the Child Tax Credit.
While Weier applauds such efforts, she also encourages elected officials not to leave anyone behind.
"We need to feed families. We need to make sure families are not in poverty. We need to make sure that bill covers as many of our kids as possible and not leave out anyone, including mixed-status families and undocumented students, because that is where the need is as well," said Weier. "We love kids regardless of their status, regardless of anything.
"We love kids and this is a great way of showing it."