Who is going to step up for hungry kids in rural Utah?

Summer lunch programs, aimed at children who get free school lunch during the school year, are well established along the Wasatch Front. The kids just have to show up, and they’ll be handed what may be the most nutritious food they get all day.

But in Utah’s hinterlands, summer lunch programs are scarce.

That’s unfortunate because rural Utah has a higher percentage of kids who need these programs. The “food insecurity rate,” defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the percentage of children who lack consistent access to nutritious food, is higher in most rural counties. That free meal can be their only meal some days.

There are 265 summer lunch programs statewide. Salt Lake County alone has 131, but 16 of Utah’s 29 counties have less than five.

Seven counties have no place for a kid to get a free meal. That includes a three-county swath of southern Utah — Wayne, Garfield and Kane — where about one in seven kids is food insecure.

Beautiful country. Undernourished children.

The vast expanses of Utah present extra challenges for anyone willing to take it on. Kids are scattered across small towns and ranches. But USDA reimburses the cost of meals for those who qualify for free school lunch, and it makes that funding available to non-profits as well as government agencies.

In urban areas, schools often run the programs as summer versions of their school lunch programs, but churches and charity groups also run them. The demand is apparent in Cedar City and Enoch, where Community Presbyterian Church feeds 300 kids a day at two sites.

Rural Utahns have a proud history of self reliance, but pride can lead to denial. By declining to offer free food to kids who need it, county leaders — those inside and outside of government — aren’t acknowledging the real poverty in their communities.

Truth is everyone knows rural Utah has been missing out on the state's boom times, and improving economic opportunity is now the focus of several initiatives.

It’s a long process, one that will take years. If we want the next generation of rural Utahns to do better, we better get them fed.