WEST VALLEY CITY — When asked whether giving food to hungry kids is “enabling them,” Michelle Benedict agrees wholeheartedly.
She’s not at all ashamed to help children succeed.
“Kids don’t pick their circumstance and sometimes their parents don’t either,” the engagement manager at USANA said Thursday. “Hard times come upon all people.”
Benedict works with the USANA Foundation Kids Eat program, which opened a new 17,000-square-foot packing facility near the company’s headquarters in West Valley City, where backpacks are stuffed with a variety of wholesome foods that Utah kids at risk of hunger can take home and eat for the weekend.
“You’re bagging beans and greens — simple stuff that has nutrient value that nourishes the hippocampus, which is the memory center of the brain and helps kids to learn and grow,” said Dr. Mehmet Oz, a television personality and cardiothoracic surgeon who was in town for the opening.
USANA Health Sciences, a Utah-based company that produces nutritional products, supplements and skin care, partners with Oz’s HealthCorps, which operates nationwide to teach kids how to take care of their bodies.
Oz said proper nutrition is an important part of brain development and overall health.
“Your body is the most precious thing you’ve ever inherited,” he said, adding that healthy, well-nourished children will have the ability to advocate for their own needs.
“If you can change your body, you can change the world outside of it. It breeds activism,” Oz told the Deseret News.
The packing facility at USANA is open to the public, as the Kids Eat program relies on donations and volunteers to pack 800 bags each week. The bags contain 12 nonperishable items “that kids will eat,” said USANA Foundation President Brian Paul, and they are delivered to kids at 68 schools from Ogden to Herriman.
The local charity uses school counselors and teachers to identify students at risk of hunger on the weekends. In Salt Lake Valley, 56,000 children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, according to USANA.
“For long holiday breaks, we fill over 3,000 extended-break food kits so kids will have enough food,” Paul said. “We welcome the public’s help to reach the goal of filling and distributing 1,000 backpacks per week, which will total 300,000 meals for hungry kids in our community in 2020.”
Kids Eat founder Lynda Brown said the idea came to her after seeing a little girl steal a can of SpaghettiOs from the shelves at the Boys and Girls Club at Creekside High School years ago.
“I didn’t know that kids in my neighborhood were going hungry,” she said. Brown started the organization in her home with the goal of keeping the growth sustainable, educating the community along the way and allowing the public to get involved.
She said USANA’s involvement has been “a dream come true.”
West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow said his community will really benefit from the program, as more than 50% of residents in the city are minorities and many of them are low income and “struggling to survive” financially.
“As we look as a society at what we are doing, how will we be judged?” Bigelow said, adding that roads, Medicaid and other programs are nice. “But, if we have children who go hungry, then history ought to condemn us.
“There is nothing in our society that is more important than a child,” he said. “Nothing is more important than their safety and their well-being and their health.”
Bigelow said that to have an impact, everyone must believe in making a difference in children’s lives.
“This is going to take us all to make a dent in childhood hunger here,” Paul said.
It is estimated that 374,000 Utahns do not have enough to eat, and 1 in 7 Utah children are at risk of missing a meal, according to the Utah Food Bank. Paul said that fact is detrimental to the future.
“I think we can make a huge dent in the future of this nation by taking care of the future of this nation,” Oz said, adding that food insecurity impacts how a child deals with stress and anxiety — if a child isn’t well-fed, the hippocampus doesn’t grow or process what’s happening around them.
Benedict said hunger can lead to a child not being able to focus in school or to them acting out. What’s worse is that whatever contributes to food insecurity in their homes — abuse, violence, drugs, neglect, or more — can’t be dealt with when there’s hunger.
“It’s more than most of us will ever have to process,” she said. “We can provide comfort and we can provide hope. We can provide a very, very basic element that keeps this child going.”
Giving them food, and a sustainable and reliable source from which to get it, shows children that someone cares.
“We believe that we are enabling this child to go out into the world and deal with what they have to do,” she said. “This bag of food enables this child to be nourished, so they can get up in the morning, they can go to school, they can pay attention in school, they can do well on their tests and then they can go home and face whatever it is that lies behind that door.
“So, we believe we are enabling these children to succeed ... and we plan on enabling every child we possibly can.”
For more information, to donate, or to get involved, visit USANAKidsEat.org.