The Alpine School District’s Sept. 10 announcement that all students will be eligible for free meals until December has met with both outrage and applause from the Lehi community.
Beginning Sept. 14, breakfast and lunch will be offered for free to all enrolled students, regardless of whether they are learning face-to-face in physical classrooms or are taking online courses. The food will be available during each schools’ scheduled mealtimes.
Districts statewide are participating in the program, which is being funded through a temporary waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture. The meals will be available through December, or until federal funds are exhausted.
Spokespeople for the district did not respond to a request about how much federal funding the district is receiving for the program as of deadline.
Families do not have to apply to receive the meals, although the district recommends those who are eligible to complete applications for free or reduced-price meals, so they don’t experience a gap in services after the federal waiver expires. Applications are available at http://alpineschools.org/nutrition.
Melissa Laurence, who lives in Lehi, was shocked when she received an email announcing the free meals.
“Yes, there may be families who really are in need, but for most who are in our area, they are not in need of that,” Laurence said.
While some of her children typically eat school lunch, that will change during the program.
“My kids will not get school lunch,” she said. “I just don’t agree with it as a program, honestly.”
Laurence said that she constantly hears messages about there not being enough money budgeted for education and said that nothing “free” is actually free.
Not accepting the meals, she said, will be a lesson for her children.
“I don’t want [them] to get in that habit that just because something is offered to you for free means that you have to take it,” Laurence said.
About 22% of Alpine School District students were classified as being economically disadvantaged during the 2018-19 school year, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education.
The rate of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch varies by school, with less than 10% of students at Traverse Mountain Elementary School qualifying in 2019. About 13% of students at Lehi High School qualify, 14.89% at Skyridge High School qualify, and 21.07% of students at Belmont Elementary School qualify.
At other schools throughout the district, however, rates are much higher, including at Geneva Elementary School in Orem, where 83.49% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2019.
Aaron Bullen, who lives in Lehi, said while he supports free and reduced lunch programs, he said the federal government doesn’t have the money to provide free meals to every student and is doing it in Utah County regardless of need.
“It makes sense to me that kids who are used to getting free lunch or free breakfast should continue to get that this school year,” Bullen said. “I don’t think my kids should be getting that.”
His children usually eat a sack lunch from home. He’s considering sending them to school earlier to eat the free breakfasts.
“I am kind of the opinion that I am not going to have the program go away or get my tax money back by not having free breakfast and lunch,” he said.
The temporary program, he said, opens the gates for those who aren’t in need to take advantage of the system.
“I would rather people like me not be getting free breakfast and lunch, even though I probably will,” Bullen said.
After seeing the announcement, Kenna Feltch thought about her family’s old neighborhood in American Fork. The Feltch family moved to Lehi from right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I was actually really surprised that it is going to be free for everybody, and I was excited for those families I could think of in our American Fork neighborhood who were struggling before the pandemic, and I remember what happened to them, afterward,” she said.
Her family pays at least $100 a month for their children to eat lunch at school. They plan to donate the money they would have spent on school lunch during the free meal period to charities as a way to pay it forward.
After seeing the Alpine School District’s social media post on the meals — and many comments bashing the program – Feltch wrote a supportive message on the thread. She said she stopped reading comments because of how many people were against the temporary expansion.
“It breaks my heart to read it,” Feltch said. She feels the program is critical in helping many families experiencing food insecurity right now.
She said families who feel negatively about the program could provide help in other ways, such as donating to food banks, providing cleaning supplies for teachers, or by giving money to a charity.
“I just wish that people would think this is a great opportunity for us as a district or community to pay it forward and do it for others who can’t do it,” she said.