SALT LAKE CITY — Kari Buchanan held out the white paper sack lunch one of her three children had eaten at Sunnyside Park Tuesday, displaying half of a chicken sandwich and a few other uneaten items.
Through the Summer Food Service Program, the lunch was provided free for her children and others who gathered at the park for the meal. The federally funded program is designed to provide kids 18 and under with a nutritious lunch, and sometimes breakfast, at various parks and elementary schools across the nation during summer break.
The program has a few rules, which program officials say are there for good reason — but this message isn't getting through to parents.
The kids have to eat the food in the approved area and parents are not allowed to partake unless they buy their own lunch for $3.50. All trash and leftovers have to be thrown away, except one approved item per child like carrots, packaged pretzels, or fruit.
Buchanan said the amount of food being thrown away, including everything in her child's lunch sack, is something she said she's always had an issue with. She said she doesn't know the reasoning behind it. And she's not alone.
Nicol Montero brings her three children and the two children she babysits to the park for the free meal and said sometimes she buys one for herself.
"The portion sizes even for myself are big," she said. "Many times the kids can't get through them."
Montero said her 6-year-old does a pretty good job eating most of the meal, but her 3-year-old "picks at it," and she said a good part is thrown away.
Montero said it would be nice if the kids who really needed the food could take it with them.
Casey Gifford brought her 2-year-old son to the park and said she, Montero and Buchanan "always talk about this every time we come."
Another mother who brings her four children to the park said she doesn't see lots of food being thrown away.
"It's just up to the parent's discretion if they make (their kids) eat it," Jackii White said. She said throwing food away is wasteful, but it's something parents would do at home if their kids don't eat all of their food.
White said the program is a good way to feed children the nutritious but more expensive foods rather than the less expensive and less nutritious items they would have to settle for.
"They should just take (the leftovers) to the homeless," White said.
That's an option for supervisors, said Luann Elliott, child nutrition programs director for the Utah State Office of Education, they just can't pass it out at the park.
She said not allowing parents to take leftovers home ensures the child is the one getting the meal.
Salt Lake City School District Child Nutrition Director Kelly Orton said another reason parents can't take the meals with them is because some of the menu items are temperature-sensitive. He said they need to throw away things like meat or milk because, "if it sits out way too long it can make them sick."
He said in most cases shelters and food banks don't want time-sensitive excess food either because they understand the potential health risks.
Orton said if they do have excess items not given to the children, like apples or packaged food, they save them for another lunch day or take it to another park.
"The government asks us to prepare what is needed and not overprepare," Orton said. "Quite frankly, we do a pretty good job. I don't see a lot thrown away."
Elliot said she hasn't heard many complaints of food being thrown away, either.
"Most sponsors are pretty familiar with the number of kids that come to their site," Elliott said. "They really are supposed to be projecting as best they can for the number of children they'll receive."
She said the U.S.Department of Agriculture regulates portion sizes depending on the age of the children and that the menu follows dietary guidelines for most Americans.
Barbara McDonnell, child nutrition manager at the Sunnyside Park, has helped at other park locations and said for some children who go to various parks for lunch, the meal is their main source of food for the day. She said she has seen the children who really appreciate the meal. "If the rules aren't being followed, they discontinue the program," McDonnell said. "We don't want that."
Kellie Egan, a child nutrition technician at Sunnyside Park said, "the rule isn't 'throw the food away,' it's 'what you can't eat you can't take with you.'"
She said throwing away leftovers could be perceived as a problem and wasteful but added that some food is going to be thrown away with any child, anywhere.
"You're always going to have a disgruntled parent," Egan said.
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