Chronic hunger affects tens of thousands of Utah children every day, contributing to malnutrition, tardiness at school and poor test scores.

It's a problem so acute that Gov. Mike Leavitt created the Utah Food Assistance Task Force to look into the situation. In December 1993, the task force made numerous recommendations as to how public and private entities could help alleviate the problem.So what has Leavitt done about the problem? "He set aside a state breakfast day," said Steven K. Johnson, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. And the State Office of Education printed a brochure.

Despite huge budget surpluses, advocates for Utah's hungry children note that Leavitt has not included a single task force recommendation in next year's budget. There is no call to increase accessibility of the School Breakfast Program, no plans to expand eligibility to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and Food Stamp programs.

"We hope the governor will do more," Johnson said, adding "it is disappointing more has not been done to date."

Johnson's comments came Wednesday at a press conference of the Utah Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, where speakers listed five strategies for combating the problem of children who go hungry.

The group was extremely critical of plans announced by the Republican Congress to cut or dismantle many welfare programs. "Welfare reforms should not be extended to food programs (because) they work," Johnson said.

But the group was particularly cautious not to criticize Leavitt, whom they praised for at least listening to their concerns. "In the previous administration, there was a reluctance to even listen," Johnson said.

But where those in the Utah Campaign to End Childhood Hunger were reluctant to criticize Leavitt, some of those who attended the press conference had no such reservations. Sharon Jensen, who taught school in Colorado and saw the benefits of the School Breakfast Program before moving to Utah, said it is unconscionable that Utah allows children to go to school hungry when budget coffers are over-flowing.

She wants to see the School Breakfast Program expanded to all Utah schools. In Colorado, the breakfast program contributed to improved learning and concentration. And there was a significant reduction in tardiness.

How much would it cost Utah? Nothing. The School Breakfast Program is funded entirely from federal dollars.

So why has Leavitt not supported expansion of the program to all Utah schools? "The governor's staff told us he is uncomfortable with anything that smacks as a mandate," said one member of the coalition.

Leavitt was in California on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

The coalition comprises representatives from education, church, professional and low-income service agencies and associations. The individuals within the coalition have been meeting to identify public policy issues, initiate public awareness campaigns and reach out to the business and education communities for assistance.

Strategies identified by the coalition include:

- Increase household income for the poor. This includes promoting the use of advanced Earned Income Credits, removal or reduction of the state sales tax on food, an increase in grant levels and advocacy for more livable salaries and benefits for the poor.

- Increase food to children in kindergarten through 12th grade through school-based programs. This includes expansion of the School Breakfast Program to every public school where feasible, increasing the number of sites offering the Summer Food Program and working toward the implementation of the Universal Feeding concept, where school meals are free to all students, thus eliminating stigmas and excessive paperwork.

- Increase participation in other current food programs. This includes an increase in the number of eligible households participating in the food stamp and WIC programs, and an increase in food and financial support to Utah's food pantries.

- Promote community-based anti-hunger efforts. This includes the creation of food cooperatives, the development of community gardens and support for private and community feeding programs.

- Increase awareness of childhood hunger and solutions. This includes a campaign to raise awareness about the extent of hunger in Utah, a campaign to educate potentially eligible households about available food aid programs, develop business support for ending childhood hunger in Utah and encourage Leavitt and the Legislature to take action on the findings of the Food Assistance Task Force.

A 1992 study by the Utah Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project found that more than 100,000 Utah children under age 12 live in families that experience episodes of hunger.