OGDEN — The holidays often involve a surplus of food at family feasts; but for many Utah children, their holiday break from school means they have access to significantly less food than usual.

According to the Utah Food Bank, 142,000 Utah children — 1 in 7 — don’t know where their next meal will be coming from. In Weber County, 11,600 children live in poverty, which equates to 16.8 percent, according to the Community Action Partnership of Utah’s 2017–2018 Annual Report on Poverty. In Davis County, 9,754 children, or 9 percent, live in poverty.

Many more children benefit from the free and reduced-price lunch program, which serves children whose family income is up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Across Utah, 34.7 percent of children qualify for the program.

In Ogden School District, 76 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and the district provides free lunch even to students who qualify for a reduced price, with the support of state funds.

In Weber and Davis districts, 31 percent and 22 percent of students qualify, respectively, as recorded in the Utah Board of Education’s October 2017 survey of eligible students across the state.

Depending on the school they attend, many of these students also have access to free breakfasts and meals in after-school programs. Younger children who participate in the Head Start program also receive food assistance.

However, during the 12-day winter break, children and teens usually don’t have access to many of these resources.

Durrell Annis coordinates Bridging the Gap, a food-assistance program run by Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah. The program is a mobile food pantry that drops off food monthly at seven elementary schools in Ogden and Weber school districts. At participating schools, each child receives two bags of food totaling about 10 pounds.

Every week, Annis sees the young faces behind the statistics on food insecurity.

While visiting one elementary school, Annis said, a girl approached her and said, “You guys, my family has no food in our house. We are so thankful for the food you give us.”

“Schools call all the time wanting Bridging the Gap,” Annis said, but the growth of the program is constrained by the number of trucks the organization has, as well as the donations they receive. Pepsi recently donated a truck to the program, which will make it possible to serve two additional schools starting in February.

Annis also coordinates the pantry pack program, which drops off smaller 1-gallon bags of food that are discreetly placed in children’s backpacks. The pantry pack program serves 11 schools that have lower percentages of children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch than the schools served by Bridging the Gap. More schools in Weber district participate in this program.

Weber and Ogden school districts have a similar number of students who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program — about 9,000 in each district — but qualifying students in Weber are spread out among more schools.

Currently, Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah serves 4,000 students monthly through Bridging the Gap and provides 1,800 pantry packs a month.

While the community has shown significant support — pantry packs are fully funded by community donations — there’s still a gap between the number of students served and the number of students in need.

Before the holiday break, the programs provided an additional 550 Bridging the Gap food bags and 335 pantry packs through schools and local nonprofits in addition to the regular amount of food delivered monthly.

In previous years, CCS staff have made visits to schools during the break, but this year they tried a different approach of providing the extra food to students before the break begins.

Students are also stepping up to help their peers who are in need. In Davis County, Clearfield High School has dedicated its annual fundraiser to closing what the Davis School District calls the “hunger zone.”

“If you are hungry, your concern is not in your learning,” said Kellie Mudrow, assistant principal at Clearfield.

Drawing on her own childhood experiences with food insecurity, Mudrow knows what it is like for these students who are struggling without adequate food.

“It’s on a kid’s mind,” she says. But she “wants students to understand, food insecurity is temporary” and “every experience we have can help us move forward.”

Clearfield’s goal was to raise $50,000 dollars before the school’s winter break. As of Thursday, Dec. 20, the school reached its goal and then some, with donations totaling $63,200. Clearfield has held events such as a dance, talent show and fundraiser nights throughout the week in order to meet its goal.

Community groups and organizations that contributed to the fundraiser were invited to events and the final assembly announcing the total amount of donations.

“We want them to see the work we’ve put into the community,” Christina Gillespie, Clearfield’s student body officer over service, said of the assembly.

A neighboring high school, Northridge, started a food pantry in January 2017. Clearfield has been sending people in their community over to this pantry.

Now that the fundraiser is complete, Clearfield student body officers will learn how to run a school pantry from Northridge. In order to sustain the pantry long term, school clubs will take turns maintaining it. Clearfield’s pantry will also be supported by Bountiful Food Pantry. Other food or monetary donations are also welcome.

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