Salt Lake Tribune, July 21, 2008: Demand for meal assistance on the rise in Utah
By Lisa Schencker
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake TribuneArticle Last Updated:In summers past, Britney Visser mostly fixed lunch for her two children at home.
But this summer, with gasoline and food prices rising, she’s taking them to a Kearns park every day for free, federally funded lunches. The free lunches help offset the cost of the gas her husband needs to drive to work each day, Visser said as she sat on a picnic blanket eating lunch with her children at the park Wednesday.
“I know if I bring my kids to lunch here, they’ll eat healthier because I can’t afford the healthy food at home,” she said.
Many families at many different income levels across the state are in the same situation. The Salt Lake City School District, which runs many of the summer lunch sites in Utah, is serving about 10 percent more lunches this summer than last, said Kelly Orton, director of support services for the district. The district serves about 10,000 lunches a day at its 66 sites, Orton said.
To the north, the Ogden City School District also served about 10 to 12 percent more meals in June than in June last year, said Laura Decker, child nutrition secretary for the district. In the rural, southern corner of the state, the San Juan School District is serving 3 percent more meals than last summer, said John Parkinson, district food service director.
“A lot of people really need it at this point with the economy the way it is,” said Kathy Iversen, a nutrition manager for the Salt Lake district who helped hand out lunches at Liberty Park this week.
She said some children arrive at Liberty Park a half hour early each day to stand in line for the food. Some seem overly hungry, she said.
“For some of the kids here, this might be the only meal they’re getting,” Iversen said.
Grandmother Gloria Rodriguez said she brings her grandchildren to Liberty Park most days to make sure they get at least one nutritious meal a day. She said her daughter’s food stamps don’t go as far as they once did.
Rodriguez, who works at a local grocery store, said she’s also noticed her paycheck doesn’t buy as much food as it used to.
Food prices rose 1.3 percent along the Wasatch Front in June, according to Wells Fargo economist Kelly Matthews. Since last year, food prices have shot up 5 percent nationally, he said.
“This way it eases my mind,” Rodriguez said. “I know they’re getting something. They have something I know was nutritious.”
But low-income families aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the free summer lunch program.
Each day, many seemingly middle class families dot local parks and schools. They push strollers, haul picnic blankets and bikes. Stay-at-home moms coordinate play dates around the meals or read novels as their children eat.
“I enjoy having the kids play with other kids, and having a free lunch doesn’t hurt because it saves a lot in my pocketbook,” said Kimberly Robison, who said she brings her two children to Liberty Park each day.
Normally, during the school year, schools only offer free and reduced price lunches to students from families that make a certain amount of money or less. The summer meals, however, are served in areas where many children normally take advantage of free lunches during the school year and are for anyone. All children have to do during the summer is show up to get the free meals. Parents can eat the meals for $3.
The idea is to make the meals as accessible as possible during the summer when families might not know where to turn, said Luann Shipley, director of the Child Nutrition Office at the Utah State Office of Education.
This summer, the Salt Lake district program is feeding more people than ever before.
“It feels good to know I’m not the only mom in that situation,” said Sarahi Velazquez as her four kids lunched on burritos, carrots, applesauce, milk, graham crackers and baked chips at the Kearns park recently. “We are an average, everyday family. It’s not just for low-income people. It’s for everyone.”
Kearns mother Jolene Harris said her family is cutting back in many areas to save money this summer. She said she tries to walk rather than drive whenever possible. When she does have to drive, she tries to do all her errands at once to avoid multiple trips.
She also brings her four kids to the Kearns park each day to save on food costs while her husband, an education professional, looks for a new job.
“Just with gas prices and food prices, everything is tighter now,” Harris said. “I think everyone is having to cut back everywhere they can.”