State programs fight to end childhood hunger in Utah


Joey is 8 years old. He comes from a low-income household. His family uses food stamps to supplement their food budget, but Joey still doesn’t get enough to eat. He doesn’t make it to school in time to eat breakfast, and the only adequate, nutritional meal he gets during the day is his school lunch. Joey is often sick. He misses several days of school throughout the year and falls behind. His test scores are far below the national average. During the summer, Joey is hungry because he doesn’t have access to school meals. Joey coasts by in school, until high school, when he drops out to get a job and support his family. He earns minimum wage and his own family is food insecure. The cycle continues.

Many experts agree that fighting the bitter cycles of poverty and hunger begins with addressing childhood hunger.

One in five households in Utah with children are food insecure. This means those households “experience limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods at some point during the year,” according to No Kid Hungry, a campaign created by the national organization Share Our Strength that aims to end childhood hunger in America.

Listen to learn three ways how community members can help fight childhood hunger in Utah.

The state of Utah has an overall food insecurity rate of 11.9 percent — this statistic looks at all households. Utah has a childhood food insecurity rate of 20.4 percent, which just accounts for the households with children, according to the USDA and the 2010 U.S. Census.

Childhood food insecurity rates are highest in Washington, D.C. at 30.5 percent and are lowest in North Dakota at 10.9 percent. Utah has the 36th highest rate of childhood food insecurity in the nation when D.C. is included.

Three out of five Utah teachers say their students regularly come to school hungry, according to a report published by Utahns Against Hunger titled ‘Too Hungry to Learn’: Utah Teachers’ Perspectives On Hunger in the Classroom.”

177,000 low-income children in Utah receive free or reduced-price lunch. All of these children are eligible for other meals, including breakfast and summer meals, but too many are missing out.

Click here to learn more about how Utah is implementing the National School Breakfast Program.

Several state and federal institutions are working to fight the problem of childhood hunger in Utah.

Utah Food Bank 

Students receive food from a mobile food pantry at their elementary school. The Utah Food Bank organizes these mobile food pantries to get healthy food to more children. (Utah Food Bank)
An elementary student receives food from a mobile food pantry at his school. These mobile food pantries are organized by the Utah food bank. (Utah Food Bank)

Heidi Cannella is the communications specialist at the Utah Food Bank in Salt Lake City.

“Education and awareness of hunger in Utah are some of the key tools we use to help us with our mission of fighting hunger statewide,” Cannella said. “When people realize that hunger affects everyone, not just people in certain parts of the state or certain demographics, it’s amazing to see their reaction.”

Cannella discussed several of the programs that the Food Bank implements to fight childhood hunger.

“I don’t think that just because someone got dealt a better hand in life that their children should have more opportunities than another who maybe wasn’t so blessed,” Cannella said. “If a child is hungry, how do they concentrate? If they can’t concentrate, how do they learn? If they can’t learn in school, how can they succeed in life? I don’t believe that access to a necessity as basic as food should limit a child’s opportunities.”

Cannella mentioned Kids Cafe, a program that “prepares and distributes up to 1,800 nutritious meals daily to children who may not get dinner that evening at more than 42 after-school sites.”

Another program the Food Bank organizes is called the BackPack Program. This initiative addresses the need for children who don’t have food at home during the weekend. Children from food-insecure households are given a backpack on Friday full of kid-friendly food to last through the weekend.

“On Mondays, they bring back the empty backpack, and school staff refill it and hold onto it until the following Friday, and it happens each week,” Cannella said. “Last year we distributed more than 63,000 backpacks to children to ensure hunger-free weekends.”

The Mobile School Pantry program also works to supplement the state and local child nutrition programs. This program works to provide fresh foods to families that may be underserved by their regular local food pantry.

“(The) program visits 52 local schools each month at a predetermined time in an effort to serve students and their families in a more holistic manner than some of our other childhood hunger programs,” Cannella said. “The response to this program has been overwhelming, and thanks to an outpouring of community support, we have exceeded our goals each year the program has operated.”

Utah State Board of Education Child Nutrition Programs

Staff members attend every school in Utah to ensure they are following federal guidelines for school meals. These checkups guarantee children who live below the poverty line are getting healthy meals at school.

National studies and statistics show children who have enough to eat perform better in math and science. They have fewer tardies and absences.

The national dropout rate of students living in low income families (many of whom are food-insecure) is 8.7 percent. Students who get enough nutrition, which contributes to higher academic performance, are more likely to defy this statistic by graduating high school. They are then far more likely to get a job that enables them to break free from the food-insecurity cycle.

“We often hear stories from teachers or school administrators that they see a behavioral improvement in class because of our services,” Cannella said, “or that families we have helped are able to get back on their feet and in turn help others who need it.”

Federal legislation 

Most state and district programs that are in place to fight childhood hunger in Utah stem from legislation at the federal level. The National School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program set guidelines for providing meals to children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

In recent years, other legislation has been discussed in Congress to help fight hunger on both a national and state level.

The Summer Meals Act of 2015 “would enhance efforts to expand the reach of the Summer Food Program to low-income children and significantly simplify the administration of the program for sponsors,” according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, D.C.

Only 11 percent of Utah children eating free or reduced-price school lunches are getting summer meals, and this statistic is echoed nationwide.

The Stop Child Summer Hunger Act of 2015 “would provide low-income families with children an electronic benefit transfer card for the summer to purchase food. This bill offers another food resource for low-income children in addition to the Summer Nutrition Programs,” according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Those interested in advocating for more child nutrition program legislation can contact their congressional representative.

No Kid Hungry

No Kid Hungry is a national organization committed to providing meals to every child in America. The organization works with local organizations to raise awareness, fundraise and provide meals for children.

Programs that No Kid Hungry advocates for and sponsors include the Summer Meals Program, the Cooking Matters program, and the National School Breakfast Program.

The Summer Meals Program works with local efforts to ensure children have access to food in the summer when they don’t have regular school meals. Click here to learn more about how the Summer Meals program functions in Utah.

The No Kid Hungry Cooking Matters program “gives families the tools they need to cook healthy meals and stretch their food budgets,” according to the No Kid Hungry website.

“Every day we see the difference we are making in the lives of Utahns facing hunger,” Cannella said. “Whether it’s children’s faces lighting up when they are handed food at a Mobile School Pantry . . . or hearing stories of some of the families we are helping through our partner agencies, it all reminds us of just how important our work is.”

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