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Child nutrition advocates say few parents aware of free summer meals program

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah school districts, city parks and community centers offer free meals for kids when school is out, but few Utah kids who need free meals are receiving them, according to a recent study.

Part of the reason is because many parents don't know it's available.

One by one, little feet move through the cafeteria line at Jackson Elementary School, 750 W. 200 North. They’re kids from the community, and as they patiently wait to be served, they stretch out their hands to receive their free meals.

Tuesday’s menu was a chicken sandwich on whole wheat bread, with tomatoes and lettuce to garnish the sandwich, a small bag of chips, one-quarter cup of red seedless grapes, and fat-free or 1 percent lowfat milk.

It’s mouthwatering for Martha Bustamante’s boys, who plan to start kindergarten and first grade at Jackson Elementary in the fall.

“It’s healthy for them,” Bustamante said. “They can meet more children because they've never been in school. They're going to start this year.”

Workers at the State Office of Education say a misconception with the free summer meals program is that only low-income families are eligible to receive the food. Child nutrition advocates said it’s a community program for everyone. Kids eat free, while adults pay under $5 for a meal.

A study just released by the Food Research and Action Center showed 1 in 10 Utah kids who needs free or reduced meals is getting them.

“I think the need is there,” said Katie Kapusta, dietician for the Child Nutrition Program in the Salt Lake City School District. “I think our problem is just reaching people and letting them know that it's even out there.”

The State Office of Education sent fliers to schools about the Child Nutrition Program and locations. The program is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is celebrating 40 years of the summer meals programs.

Most summer meal sites operate in June through mid-July. Summer meal programs offer breakfast, snacks, lunch and/or dinner. This summer, Utah has 38 summer meal sponsors operating 218 sites throughout the state.

Among those sites are 29 school districts and charter schools participating in summer meal programs: Alpine, Box Elder, Cache, Carbon, Davis, Duchesne, Emery, Grand, Granite, Jordan, Juab, Millard, Guadalupe, North Sanpete, Park City, Salt Lake City, Sevier, South Sanpete, Tooele, Uintah, Wasatch, Washington, Weber, Ogden, Provo, Logan and Canyons school districts; and American Preparatory Academy and Valley Academy charter schools.

There are other nonprofit organizations sponsoring the summer meal programs that have sites open to the communities, including the Utah Food Bank, Salt Lake Community Action Program, Aneth Community School, Boys and Girls Club of South Valley, Community Presbyterian Church, and Ute Mountain Tribe.

The program is mostly available at schools, city parks and community centers. For information on locations and serving times, call 800-453-FOOD (3663).

Last summer, the State Office of Education reported that more than 1 million free meals were served to children in Utah.

The program has its challenges.

“It’s a funding issue,” said Marti Woolford, nutrition initiatives director for Utahns Against Hunger. “When you do summer food, the federal government reimburses for every meal that's served, but they do not reimburse or pay for staff time.”

That presents a challenge for children who may be going hungry in rural communities, Woolford said.

“We have a few sites that just don't run long enough. They're only open in June,” she said. “They still have July and August. Kids still need to eat those months. They don't have access to that.”

State officials also identified transportation to food sites as a problem for some, especially in rural communities.

Other challenges include following federal guidelines that force sites to throw unused food away. Woolford said lawmakers will soon reassess the needs of the Child Nutrition Program.

“USDA is working on a lot of ways to streamline these programs for sponsors to make them easier to operate,” she said. “If you know that food is getting wasted or not being able to reuse it, or even letting kids get a second meal, we'd like that feedback.”

Advocates just don’t want Utah kids to go hungry.

“We want to feed as many kids as possible,” Kapusta said. “They don't have to attend the school or even live within our district — any child."

Email: niyamba@deseretnews.com