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Utah Families Face Shortage Of Free Summer Meal Programs

U.S. Department of Agriculture

With schools out for the summer, many parents share a concern about their children that reaches far beyond reading assignments and summer camp: where their next meal will come from.

Thousands of Utah families rely on free summer meal programs funded by the federal government to feed their children once school food becomes unavailable. But despite high demand, there is a shortage of the programs statewide.

The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that most Utah counties have fewer than 10 summer meal sites available and that the programs don't exist in several counties with high child food insecurity rates, according to data from the state Board of Education.

Nonprofits and government agencies can apply to open a site, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They receive federal reimbursement for the meals they fund and serve — an approach that advocates say can exclude cash-strapped school districts and other groups.

In Iron County, the Community Presbyterian Church runs two sites and serves about 300 meals a day, staff members told the newspaper.

"We know from the numbers that we are serving . that there are more kids out there who are hungry and could utilize the lunches," said Rita Osborn, coordinator of the church's program and executive director for the Utah Center for Rural Health.

At Main Street Park in Cedar City, some homeless families sleep close to the church's meal site and visit every day.

"You can tell (the meal) is definitely a lifesaver for their families, because the kids at least get one meal," staffer Naomi Martinez said. "It solves a tiny part of a bigger issue."

Garfield County has the second highest child food insecurity rate in Utah at 21%, according to data from Feeding America, a national network of food banks. Yet there are no summer meal sites.

Tracy Davis, superintendent of the Garfield County School District, said financial constraints and a sparse population have prevented sites from operating there.

Some advocates said transportation presents another barrier in many rural Utah communities.

"Are you going to drive your kids half an hour, 45 minutes to go get a free lunch if you don't have gas to get to work the next day?" said Gina Cornia, executive director of the nonprofit organization Utahns Against Hunger. "While school districts and nonprofits are doing what they can, there are gaps that remain."

Martinez said residents need to be more aware of food insecurity in Utah and encourage their school districts and local officials to address the issue.

"The problem really comes from community members turning a blind eye to the bigger issue," she said. "This is an issue, what are we going to do about it?"