Thousands of Utah families depend on free summer meals. Here’s where the programs fall short.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Nelson hands out a lunch to 4-year-old Malaki Jackson during the Summer Sun Food and Fun summer lunch program in a park in Cedar City, Thursday, June 20, 2019.

Cedar City • Elijah and Cyrus Ward hate black beans. Their older sister, Alexis, loves them.

On a Thursday afternoon, as her brothers scattered into Main Street Park in Cedar City, the 8-year-old girl quickly scooped the beans out of their abandoned lunches and mixed them with her taco salad. Gira Ward, her mother, had waited in line for the food at the summer meal site in the park.

The Wards try to provide their children with a diverse diet, even within a tight budget. The site, which provides free lunch for her children and is only a five-minute drive from their home, helps alleviate that burden, Gira Ward said.

Not every family in Utah, however, enjoys the same convenience.

There are about 130 summer meal sites in Salt Lake County alone — more than a third of all sites in the state. But most counties have fewer than 10 sites available, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education.

And in seven counties, some of which have the highest child food insecurity rates in Utah, the summer program is not available at all.

Nonprofits and government agencies can apply to run the sites, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They get federal reimbursements for the meals they fund upfront and serve — a strategy that can be difficult for cash-strapped school districts and groups.

The Cedar City site is run by the Community Presbyterian Church, one of its two sites in Iron County that offer a free lunch to any children who show up.

“We know from the numbers that we are serving … that there are more kids out there who are hungry and could utilize the lunches,” said Rita Osborn, coordinator of the church’s program and executive director for the Utah Center for Rural Health.

The church serves an average total of 300 meals a day between its sites in Cedar City and neighboring Enoch, according to its staff. More than 2,700 children in Iron County were food-insecure in 2017, according to data collected by Feeding America, a national food bank network.

‘This is an issue’

Sometimes, when food runs out at the Cedar City site, staffer Naomi Martinez stays and counts how many more children come looking.

The Southern Utah University nutrition graduate feels heartbroken whenever she has to tell them: “I’m so sorry, we don’t have any more food today.”

Some families who appear to be homeless stay in the park and come to the site every day, Martinez said. “You can tell (the meal) is definitely a lifesaver for their families, because the kids at least get one meal,” she said. “It solves a tiny part of a bigger issue.”

James Jordan, director of the Afterschool All-Stars Summer Camp in Cedar City, was gearing up for a chalk fight with the kids enrolled in his program this Thursday afternoon. Adjacent to the summer meal site, Jordan’s camp participants have easy access to free lunches.

He’s known a lot of the campers for years. During the school year, their need remains evident.

“We see kids (whose) lunches, meals come from whatever it is the school provides,”Jordan said. “School breakfast, school lunch, and then that’s it.”

The Iron County School District does not operate summer meal sites. Paula Loveland, child nutrition program supervisor for the district, said it’s because the church is doing a great job meeting children’s needs.

The school district would step in if the church stops running the program, she said.

“We never stepped on their toes,” Loveland said. “As long as they are doing that, I’m stepping back to allow them to do it.”

But Osborn said she knows that what the church can offer does not cover all the hungry children in Iron County.

“Places like Parowan, we would love to be able to serve there,” Osborn said, “but, unfortunately, it’s just cost prohibitive for us right now to do that based on the reimbursements.”

Martinez believes the community needs to be more aware of the need. “The problem really comes from community members turning a blind eye to the bigger issue,” she said. "… This is an issue, what are we going to do about it?”

Gail Harris, a retired teacher who taught at Parowan High School for 26 years, said she would love to see the school district stepping up. “That’s money well spent," she said, “that’s money wisely spent, that’s money where it should be spent.”

‘Too much ground to cover’

Garfield County has an even bigger challenge. It has the second highest child food insecurity rate in Utah, with 21% of its children having trouble accessing adequate food, according to data from Feeding America in 2017.

It’s also among the seven counties in the state without any summer meal sites.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

For Tracy Davis, superintendent of the Garfield County School District, the vacuum is a result of financial hardship and a sparse population.

The county’s revenue relies heavily on tourism, particularly national park visits — and the park service pays better than the school district, he said.

“So it’s hard for us to even staff our kitchens during the school year,” Davis said. “The school in Boulder hasn’t had a lunch program since I’ve been here, just because there’s nobody that will take the position.”

Davis said that the district has been trying to hire social workers but lacks the necessary budget. “The last allocation from the Legislature gave us enough to hire a third of a social worker,” he said.

The transportation costs for a summer me

al program would be an additional hurdle, he said. The nine schools in the district are geographically spread out. “There’s too much ground to cover,” he said.

The same issue thwarted Jeanne Warren’s hopes for expanding the Emery County School District’s summer nutrition program. Warren, its supervisor, wanted to add a site in Green River.

She hoped to dedicate a bus route to transport children from the outlying areas into the town. But it would cost the district $12,000, an expense it could not bear. She also worried that participation might be too low for the district to recover its costs.

Sites have to pay their costs upfront and get a flat-rate reimbursement for meals served, rather than just prepared.

Green River Pact, a local nonprofit, stepped up to the plate and began providing summer meals in the area. It served 508 lunches and 264 breakfasts during summer 2018, according to state data.

‘Unspoken responsibility’

In Tooele County, the school district has opened three new sites over the past three years in an effort to reach further into rural areas. The district now serves over 1,500 meals per day on average, according to the district’s nutritionist Sarah Martinez.

The new sites are a fourth spot in Tooele, one in Grantsville and one in Dugway — an especially exciting addition, Martinez said. “Kids that need meals in [Dugway] would not be able to come to Tooele to get one, so it gives them access,” she said.

However, over 3,000 children in Tooele County lived in food insecurity in 2017, according to data from Feeding America. “I’m sure there are kids in other areas in our county that we don’t have a summer site super close,” Martinez said.

Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said in many rural Utah communities, transportation poses a serious barrier.

“Are you going to drive your kids half an hour, 45 minutes to go get a free lunch if you don’t have gas to get to work the next day?” Cornia said. “While school districts and nonprofits are doing what they can, there are gaps that remain.”

In Iron County, with the school district’s decision to not run sites and the Presbyterian church unable to afford an expansion, businesses are trying to bridge the gap in Parowan.

“It’s just a kind of unspoken responsibility,” said Harris, the retired teacher. “They don’t formalize it as far as whose turn (it is). It’s just part of their character.”

Katti Lister, owner of Parowan Cafe, said she serves families in need, a tradition in her family business.

“We know that the kids need food,” Lister said, “we have no problem feeding them here at the cafe, even if it’s just toast or pancakes.”

Across the street, Calvario’s Family Restaurant tries to help out when it can. “We see someone struggle here in the restaurant, we try to take care of the check,” owner Janitzio Calvario said.

At times, the restaurant offers meals to students for a flat rate of $5. Once a year, Calvario said, the restaurant picks well-behaved students with good grades and provides them with free meals for two days.

Last year, a customer pitched in and donated $100 for the annual cause, he said. In this way, more than 100 students received free meals, Calvario said.

“We do it from our heart,” he said. “As a community, we try to support people who are in hard situations.”

Find a summer meal site

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Meal Site Finder is an interactive map of meal sites nationwide. Find it at https://www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks. You can also send a text to find a summer food location near you. Text the word FOOD to 877-877. For more resources, visit the website of Utahns Against Hunger at uah.org.