More Utah kids than you might think are hungry. This program aims to change that.

Demand for food bank assistance and meals at school has remained stubbornly high since the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Magna • Zuri Sadai and her 9-year-old daughter decided to walk over to nearby Magna Regional Park on a recent Friday.

When they got there, someone told Sadai that there was free lunch available for her daughter. After picking up a little brown sack from a pair of Utah Food Bank staff members, the two sat down in the grass to eat.

It was the first time they had heard of the free summer meals program for kids. Sadai plans on coming back.

“Right now, I’m unemployed and I have four kids,” she said in Spanish. “This program would help me and my budget a lot.”

The food bank hands out lunches here to every child under 18 who wants one from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. every weekday through mid-August. It’s one of about 80 free summer meal sites in the Salt Lake Valley hosted by the food bank and local school districts. More than 50 of those sites are located west of Interstate 15.

The program, paid for by the federal Department of Agriculture, is a big deal because it aims to fill the summertime gap in nutrition for kids. During the school year, many children from low-income families qualify for free and reduced lunch, and can often get breakfast at their campuses, too. When school is out, however, those opportunities are not available, leaving some to either eat less nutritious food or struggle with hunger.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, more families are coming to the food bank across its umbrella of services, said CEO Ginette Bott. She also asked Utahns to look out for those around them.

“The biggest mistake people make is not recognizing that fact that maybe they don’t need the service, but someone close to them might,” Bott said. “If there’s someone you think can be helped, please pass the word along.”

The need is vast. The food bank estimates one in 10 kids statewide don’t know where they will get their next meal.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Scott, mobile school pantry coordinator, hands out sack lunches at Magna Regional Park on Friday, June 21, 2024.

Most of the lunch spots sit on the west side because sites are placed based on neighborhoods’ or schools’ overall levels of poverty. Census data on income is a good proxy for where the need is in the valley, said Kelly Orton, who runs the Salt Lake City School District’s nutrition services department.

The food bank and school districts set up sites at parks, schools and even apartment complexes as they try to reach families where they are. Overall, program officials say, it seems like the parks, especially those with splash pads, are the most popular sites. To ensure the meals go to kids, lunches that are picked up at a site must be eaten there.

Becky Hord often brings her four kids from Stansbury Park to Magna Regional Park to eat lunch and enjoy the all-ages playground and the splash pad.

“It helps a lot with [my] budget, especially with two teenage boys,” Hord said. “I feel like they eat me out of my home sometimes, so it’s really nice … I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t have to pay, cook, clean it up. So, it’s a really nice relief.”

Orton echoed Hord’s point: Summer meals can take some stress off of budgets.

“Families are struggling,” Orton said. “So, it’s very simple: Families need this program … It provides a way for children to eat nutritious food during the summer. It helps parents at managing their budgets.”

The sites don’t feed bellies with cheap, nutrient-lacking food — there’s a major emphasis on giving kids a healthy meal with at least four of these five categories: a grain, a protein, a fruit, a vegetable and dairy.

During her visit, Sadai’s 9-year-old daughter liked the carrots best.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Utah Food Bank sack lunch on Friday, June 21, 2024.