SALT LAKE CITY — Even though school is out for the summer, school-like lunches are still being served every weekday at about 200 sites throughout the state to families and children at risk of going hungry.
"They get fruit, milk, whole grains and a vegetable in every meal," said Marti Woolford, outreach coordinator and child nutrition advocate for Utahns Against Hunger, a nonprofit that aims to change public policy to help people without access to nutritious foods.
The Summer Food Service Program served more than 252,083 kids last summer, and officials are hoping to reach even more this year.
"There is no vacation time for hunger and there is no offseason for hunger," said Joanne Milner, education partnership coordinator for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. She said proper nutrition is important for kids to learn and grow.
The program began this week, serving hundreds of thousands of meals to kids 18 and under throughout the state. Parents can also partake of the service but are encouraged to pay $3 for their lunches.
"It's been great," said Angelica Phengpaseut, of Millcreek, who volunteers in the lunch preparation kitchen to help make up for the fact that her four kids get daily lunches through the program.
"I would still provide meals for them at home, but it would cost a lot of money," she said. Her kids like the variety in foods offered through the Summer Food Service Program, and Phengpaseut said she feels it is their most nutritious option at this time.
Utahns Against Hunger estimates that one in four kids in Utah experience some sort of food hardship in their lives. They are even more at risk during the summer months, when schools aren't in session and providing lunch at lunchtime, said Salt Lake County Human Services Director Lori Bays.
"In our quest to build the healthiest communities in the country, good nutrition is critical to that goal," she said. "We know it makes a difference for families all across the community."
The program, however, has struggled to reach those who need it most. Participation rates decreased 8 percent from 2012 to 2013, which is partly due to an improving economy, but also because far too many families are unaware of what is available, Woolford said.
"We can do better at reaching those families in need," she said, adding that the group has increased outreach efforts and has paid for some brightly colored advertising posters this year.
In addition to parks and other locations, the Utah State Office of Education has added the Salt Lake Main Library this year to the list of locations where free lunch is served to kids. It is also seeking other site sponsors, including public or private nonprofit School Food Authority sites, public or private nonprofit residential summer camps, local governments, or private nonprofit organizations that regularly serve the public.
Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers said the additional access to books can also help "feed minds."
"We're trying to break down the barriers to learning," he said, adding that the program can help bridge the usual drop in summer literacy among kids who are not attending regular school sessions.
Similar to the federal school lunch program, the Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, administers the Summer Food Service Program in Utah. Sponsors, such as Utahns Against Hunger, provide free meals to children at the sites and then accept federal payment, through state agencies, for the meals they serve.
Open sites operate mainly in low-income areas, where at least half of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, making them eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. For more information and to find a free lunch location in Utah, call 1-800-453-3663 or visit www.uah.org/food-assistance/summer-food.
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