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Salt Lake surges ahead of Fresno in Wal-Mart food bank challenge

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SALT LAKE CITY — If Wal-Mart's "Fighting Hunger Together" campaign were a horse race, it would be said that Salt Lake's entry surged ahead of the field in the home stretch Thursday.

Utah had a 25,000 "vote" edge over the long-time leader, Fresno, Calif., in the contest Thursday afternoon. Salt Lake City, which aims to win a $1 million grant for the Utah Food Bank from the Wal-Mart Foundation, boosted its online "Likes" to more than 1.6 million votes.

The contest concludes on New Year's Eve. Five runner-up cities will receive $100,000 grants for their respective food banks.

"We know that it is very possible for Salt Lake City to win first place based on the level of intensity and engagement from our Facebook supporters," said Jim Pugh, chief executive officer of the Utah Food Bank. "When $1 million is on the line for hunger relief, Utahns have no shame in recruiting their friends, family and colleagues in the effort."

That's how Jackee Wardle of Provo got involved.

"I had a couple of friends posting (on Facebook) about 'Come on, we need to help Utah feed the hungry.' I know we have a lot of need with the Utah Food Bank and the need has increased I believe by 40 percent over last year," she said. "I thought we need to take care of our community so I decided I would start doing my part and see if we could win the million dollars."

Wardle, who describes herself as a multi-tasker, estimates that she has voted 10,000 times in recent days. She votes while preparing dinner for her family. The mother of seven exercises about two hours each day. This week, she clicked on a computer mouse while working out to exercise videos.

Utah appeared to be riding a surge of support for both Salt Lake and Ogden on Friday. "I'm pretty sure that both Salt Lake and Ogden will at least get $100,000," Wardle said. "I don't know if we'll be able to pass Fresno and get the million but we're trying."

Ogden remained in fourth place late Thursday.

The race is far from over. In Fresno, volunteers were working six-hour shifts, packing businesses and other locations clicking "Likes" and posting comments on the Fresno page.

"We're networking with everybody we know," Fresno supporter Sara Topete told The Fresno Bee. "This is an opportunity for Fresno to do something good and give back."

e-mail: marjorie@desnews.com; mgiauque@desnews.com