Michelle Benedict was looking for a way to teach her children to give back. After hearing about Salt Lake City students who went hungry over extended breaks, she began providing one school with backpacks of food for kids to take home.

Lynda Smart Brown, a longtime volunteer with the Murray Boys & Girls Club, learned that an 8-year-old girl had stolen a can of SpaghettiOs from the center’s pantry to supplement the cold cereal she and her 4-year-old brother survived on over the weekend. Brown began organizing food for five children a week.

Both women kept working to meet the needs they saw, developing charities that fed hundreds of children at Boys & Girls Clubs and schools.

Now, Benedict’s Kids Next Door and KidsEat!, which Brown started with four others, have been acquired and merged by the USANA Foundation — which plans to provide 3,000 big bags to hungry youths for the holiday school break.

USANA Kids Eat is housed in a newly remodeled 17,000-square-foot packing and storage center next to the corporate office of USANA Health Sciences, a Salt Lake City company that produces nutritional supplements, healthy foods and personal care products.

USANA Kids Eat has been sending 800 backpacks containing seven meals home with children each weekend. One goal of the program, which serves 65 schools and organizations from Ogden to Herriman, is to increase the number of backpacks distributed weekly to 1,000, said USANA Foundation President Brian Paul.

“You go to school on an empty stomach and it’s hard to learn,” Paul said.

USANA Kids Eat will be officially launched with a ribbon-cutting scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursdayat the new center, 2538 S. 3850 West, West Valley City. Attendees can stick around afterward and pack food bags.

Small starts, big impact

When she began laying the groundwork for Kids Next Door, Benedict contacted the Salt Lake City School District to discuss its needs and found out that some students were running short on food during extended breaks.

“That is where we found our niche,” she said. “We started small. We did one school the first year.”

Under the program, families pledged to provide a certain number of bags, shopped for the ingredients, packaged the food into big bags and made the deliveries. As Kids Next Door expanded to other schools, more and more volunteers stepped up.

“I had this army of families along the Wasatch Front,” Benedict said.

Brown, who set up KidsEat! in the basement at her Murray home, planned to begin by feeding five children a week at the Boys & Girls Club and build up to 40. The organization also grew rapidly and started serving schools and other Boys & Girls Clubs.

The community pitched in. KidsEat! got contributions from neighborhood groups, businesses, churches and individuals, and food started showing up on Brown’s doorstep, sometimes with no indication who left it there. Utah State Prison inmates helped out by making 600 backpacks.

Brown’s large contingent of volunteers included fellow members of Beta Sigma Phi, a service and social sorority. KidsEat! moved to a space in the closed Creekside School in Murray after it got too big for her basement.

“It just kept growing and I kept reaching out,” Brown said. “Providence or karma sent me the right people.”

One of them was Bob Dunn, who helped start KidsEat! and retired in 2017 as executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. He praised Brown for her tireless work helping others.

“She sees a problem and she jumps on it and finds a solution,” Dunn said. “It’s just been an incredible program.”

A company on a mission

USANA has 30 programs worldwide with partners providing food and nutrition to impoverished children and their families, along with other assistance. The creation of USANA Kids Eat stemmed from the company’s desire to have a local impact that fit with that mission, Paul said.

An employee suggested the company check out KidsEat!, Brown’s charity. On a visit there, Paul was impressed by the piles of food bags going home with kids.

“When I saw that, I thought, ‘This is something special. We’re going to do this and we’re going to do this big,’” he said.

He heard that Benedict, the wife of one of USANA’s employees, was doing something similar, and USANA decided to also acquire her Kids Next Door.

Benedict said USANA’s proposal to acquire Kids Next Door, which she ran for nearly a decade, was a win-win because it was hard to manage the program on her own while also holding down a full-time job. She became engagement manager for Kids Eat, and Brown is on its board of directors.

And Geoff Partain, the executive director of KidsEat! who joined the organization soon after its founding, now is USANA Foundation’s program director.

USANA Kids Eat does not accept food items from the public; it’s instead asking for contributions of money and time. Benedict said that because USANA covers the administrative costs, all monetary donations will go toward food and help the charity grow.

“We have a waiting list of schools that need our services,” Benedict said.

Last week, USANA executives spent time at the new Kids Eat center packing bags of oatmeal, cereal, granola bars, green beans, peanut butter, apple sauce, soup, macaroni and cheese, SpaghettiOs and other foods. The bags and backpacks are given discreetly to the youths as they leave school.

Kids Eat is hoping community members also will take a turn on the packing line.

“We really want to get families here,” Paul said, adding that there will be an area where children 8 or younger can pack lighter items in “buddy bags.”

To donate to USANA Kids Eat or sign up to volunteer, visit usanakidseat.org.