Too many low-income children in Utah are going hungry this summer.
Such is the concern generated by "Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation," a national status report released Friday by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).
In July 2011, 24,849 Utah youth took advantage of free meals offered through the federally funded Summer Nutrition program, the 13-page report said. Compared to the number of low-income students tapping free or reduced lunch during the 2010-11 school year, only 15.3 out of 100 were showing up for summertime meals and snacks.
Even so, Utah slightly exceeds the national rate of 14.3 per 100 or one in seven eligible children accessing the free food.
Close to 200 summer food-service sites currently operate in 26 school districts throughout Utah, but in far-flung rural areas of the state, such sites are rare to nonexistent.
According to the FRAC report, the number of children eating free or reduced-price lunches during the school year increased between 2009 and 2011, but the number of children fed by summer nutrition programs nationwide declined during the same period.
In a statement Thursday, Gina Cornia, executive director for the advocacy organization Utahns Against Hunger (UAH), credited Utah with making some progress in reaching more children.
"But we believe it can and must do even better," Cornia said, urging the state to expand its outreach efforts.
Marti Woolford, UAH outreach coordinator, said that for some children, transportation could be the problem.
"But I also think that families are not totally aware of the program and where the meals are available," Woolford said. UAH recently distributed thousands of fliers throughout the state in an effort to boost awareness.
According to the report, four states led the pack by feeding at least one in four of their low-income children in July 2011 the District of Columbia at 73.5 percent, New Mexico at 31.2 percent, New York at 28.5 percent and Connecticut at 25.5 percent.
However, 13 states fed fewer than 10 percent of their low-income youth, with Oklahoma registering dead last at 3.7 percent. Food-service sites get reimbursed for each meal served, Woolford said.
"If we were feeding 40 out of every 100 low-income children, we'd get an additional $2.5 million," Woolford said, noting that while the state is not losing money, "we have access to money that we're losing."
The state Office of Education and Utahns Against Hunger websites provide links to an interactive map where people can locate the nearest summer food-service sites. They can also call Utahns Against Hunger at 1-800-453-FOOD for more information.
According to Woolford, anyone up to 18 years of age can enjoy a free meal without having to apply or register for the program. Some sites offer breakfast, others lunch, supper or snacks. And parents can accompany their kids and enjoy a meal for a nominal $2 to $3 charge, she added.
"It's an opportunity for kids to be outside, since most of the meal sites are in parks," Woolford said. "Also, it's a good time for families to sit down and eat a meal together, and it helps the emergency food pantries who take in fewer donations in the summer."
Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said that they advertised the summer program in their Title 1 schools and lower socioeconomic areas. However, the disconnect begins when the school year ends.
"Parents might be working two full-time jobs and extra overtime, and its always difficult to communicate with families who are stretched like that," Horsley said, "So they're not aware of those opportunities."
Allison Rowland, budget director for the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children, underscored the need to keep the less fortunate in mind while school is not in session.
"In spite of improvements in the state's economy, this is a reminder that for large numbers of Utah families the recession is still very much alive," Rowland said. "This is an example of federal programs that have real and critical impacts on Utah families, and on all Americans."
Summer Nutrition Status Report 2012:
July 2010 • 154,202 Utah kids were enrolled in free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2009-2010 school year; only 24,633 ate free Summer Nutrition meals. (16 out of 100)
July 2011 • 161,965 Utah kids signed up for free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2010-2011 school year; only 24,849 ate free Summer Nutrition meals. (15.3 out of 100)
Source: Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation