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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Jasmine Alfaro gets dinner outside of the Central Park Community Center in South Salt Lake on Friday, July 18, 2014. The dinner is part of the Salt Lake CAP summer food program, which offers free dinner to children at five locations in the valley, Monday through Friday.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is now No. 11 in the annual KIDS COUNT report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, its gains and losses largely mirroring national trends.

The state ranked as high as No. 3 in child well-being, back in 2009, but then dropped each year until it hit 14th last year. Its new ranking makes it one of the most improved states, according to the report.

In the area of family and community, Utah ranks No. 2, behind New Hampshire. In education, the Beehive State comes in No. 29. Terry Haven, deputy director of child advocacy group Voices for Utah Children, said that’s largely because of a poor showing in high school graduation rates and preschool enrollment, compared to national averages.

The report includes a comparison to where states were 25 years ago, when the first KIDS Count came out. Utah’s teen birthrate has fallen 52 percent compared to 1990, from 48 to 23 births per 1,000. Its childhood death rate has dropped 37 percent, from 38 to 24 deaths per 100,000.

Policies aimed at safety take a lot of the credit for the increased likelihood that children will survive to become adults, according to both Haven and Janet Brooks, child advocacy manager at Primary Children’s Hospital. Haven points to state legislation that created a graduated driver license and seat belt and booster seat laws as making a big difference. Brooks also credits improved technology like inflatable seat belts and side airbags, and the Spot the Tot awareness campaign to prevent driveway back-overs, along with strengthened laws to prevent drunk driving and stop parents from leaving kids in hot cars, among others.

The report also highlights what got worse for kids in Utah. Childhood poverty rates rose from 12 to 15 percent, and the percentage of children living in households that spend more than 30 percent of income on housing climbed to 34 percent from 22 percent in 1990.

One-fifth of children live in single-parent families compared to 18 percent in 2005, a year they chose to look at because it is mid-decade and before the recession.

Just making sure that all children are adequately fed is important and difficult, said Gina Cornia of Utahns Against Hunger. She points to efforts to increase the number of low-income children who participate in breakfast programs, an area where Utah lags. Children who come to school hungry don’t learn as well, so efforts are underway to reach those children. While more than one-third of Utah school children receive lunch free or at a reduced price, only a third of that third eat breakfast at school, so advocates and policymakers are trying to remove barriers.

Breakfast programs that have flourished in other states often take the early meal out of the cafeteria and into the classroom for younger students or tackle it as a grab-and-go between classes for older students, Cornia said.

Nutrition programs have made a huge difference during the recession, she added. “Hunger is a really critical issue for health and wellbeing and quality of life. We are lucky in Utah that people are incredibly generous, donating to local organizations, food banks and pantries. But they can’t begin to meet all the needs, so nutritional programs are important to make sure all families have resources.”

Voices for Utah Children has compiled a list of accomplishments Utah would need in order to rank No. 1 nationally in terms of child well-being. It says Utah would have to:

— prevent 60 teen and child deaths

— prevent 600 low birth weight births

— reduce births to teens by 1,000

— raise 18,000 children out of poverty

— enroll 24,000 children in preschool

— help the underemployed parents of 38,00 children find more stable employment

— assist the parents of 45,000 Utah children in getting high school diplomas or equivalents

— ensure that 81,000 uninsured children are covered by health insurance

— see that 160,000 more children live in affordable homes.

“We know what needs to be done,” Haven said. “There are a lot of ways to get there.”

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