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August 19, 2015 News » Cover Story

Running on Empty 

Even with food banks, food stamps and wealthy churches on nearly every corner, Utah children still go to bed hungry

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In a cramped, dimly lit basement apartment in a Murray complex a few blocks from Interstate 15, a single mother and her daughter curl up on a worn blue sofa and talk about hunger. For six months, Jane put her two daughters to bed hungry on the weekends. "Almost every night, I was hungry," 10-year-old Lulu says. (The family requested anonymity to talk about their experiences.)

By late 2014, despite having a full-time job as a nurse, Jane could no longer make ends meet. In the face of her other daughter's medical needs, as well as paying rent and utilities, "Food seems to be the last thing in the budget."

While Jane was able to provide two meals on the weekends, they had to be spaced out "to try and convince the kids they weren't hungry before dinner. She'd tell her girls to drink large glasses of water before dinnertime. "We were really well hydrated," Lulu says with a wry smile.

"Those nights you tuck the children into bed, and you start feeling really frustrated," Jane says. "You're working full time and, yet, it's still not enough. You get to the end of the month, and there's no savings. You don't even have a penny."

Lulu has attended a Boys & Girls Club in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley for the past five years. She isn't the only child at the club who has struggled with hunger. "Sometimes, a kid will come up to you and ask if they can have your milk or your salad, or your strawberries and pasta, or even your ranch packet," she says. "And it makes me feel sad that they get a dinner, and they eat it all, and they're still hungry, so they're going around begging for food."

In late 2014, several children switched from asking for food to stealing it. A longtime benefactress of the club, 70-year-old Lynda Brown, learned at a December 2014 club gala committee meeting that children on Fridays were taking snacks she donated without asking because they faced the prospect of hunger over the weekend.

Boys & Girls Club's child-care director Jamie Dunn told Brown that several of the children were part of a large family cared for by a single father. While they got food at the club during the holidays for breakfast, lunch and dinner, on the weekend, it was hard for them. "Once, when I was talking to the little girl, she told me that her daddy doesn't eat food because he's a grown up, and food is just for his kids," Dunn wrote in a short piece published on the Boys & Girls Clib's website. "They usually only have cereal to eat at home."

As the club tried to find out more about why the snacks were taken, so they found more children who were hungry over weekends. "Parents don't want to talk about it, parents don't want people to know they aren't doing enough to feed their children," Brown recalls club officials telling her. "A lot of parents don't want to say, 'I can't do that.'"

Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks across the country. Its "Map the Meal Gap" chart for 2013 estimates the total number of "food-insecure" children in Utah as just under 180,000, of which 57,350 were in Salt Lake County. "Food insecurity" occurs when a household cannot rely on access to food year-round, says advocate Marti Woolford of Utahns Against Hunger, a nonprofit which works to secure funding for food "safety-net" programs. While Utah's hungry population reflects the national average, "14 percent of households not having enough food is not acceptable," Woolford adds.

With 220,000 Utah children qualifying for free or reduced school meals, the squeeze on food access for many of them only gets worse when school is out. Summer feeding programs provided by school districts, nonprofits and Head Start (which provides dinners) and backpack programs by the Utah Food Bank and several pantries "work to fill this gap," Woolford says. Advocates say parents struggling with multiple, poorly paid jobs can face many challenges in terms of barriers to accessing federal, state and charity programs, such as language, lack of awareness and bureaucracy. "The simple reality is that many families in Utah just don't make enough money to have an abundant amount of healthy food available on the weekends and during the summer for their kids," Woolford says.

Yet despite such overwhelming need, many Utahns, Brown has discovered, "are in denial that there is such a problem." One woman told her, "If people are going hungry, it's their own fault," Brown recalls. "That's what the soup kitchens and pantries and food banks are for." Gina Cornia heads up Utahns Against Hunger. "It's easy to make assumptions about people when you don't know their story," she says. "It's easier to do that than fix what keeps them poor."

Many Utahns view poverty as a moral flaw, she says. Work harder, try harder and they will climb out of poverty. But such myths and assumptions about work and single parents are easier than looking at underlying systemic reasons. "Poverty goes down, hunger goes down," she says.

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Brown identified a niche of children of low-income parents living in Murray and Midvale, who "are hungry, and I just feel a need to feed them." In a world of innumerable federal-food programs and underfunded nonprofits and food pantries, Brown's efforts as a private citizen to address the food needs of children in her own city and beyond stand in stark contrast to the seeming lack of a coherent effort at either the state or federal level to deal with weekend hunger. Despite the existence of various food-bank programs designed to insure children don't go without, people like Brown and others who work directly with children were discovering that donated food isn't always making it into homes where food is in short supply. The children themselves are letting it be known they're going without, and that caught Brown's attention.

According to the Road Home's executive director Matt Minkevitch, a fired-up volunteer such as Brown is "the perfect example of the organic nature of how services are provided." A sprightly and energetic 70, Brown's challenge is both sustaining and developing the program to the point others can take it over. Along with feeding children in the valley, her ultimate goal is to educate Utahns that hunger is real. "You choose to not do something, that's fine—but don't tell me this isn't an issue."

For five years, Brown has donated healthy snacks for afternoon treats that the Boys & Girls Club couldn't afford, but vanquishing the weekend hunger "gap" has proved more challenging. Her solution was to turn a basement room in her Murray home into a pantry, where she would stock what has become between 40 and 60 backpacks with meals to cover children over the weekend. The children pick up the backpacks at the Boys & Girls Club on Friday, return them on Monday, and Brown refills them for the following weekend. While Utah Food Bank distributed more than 70,000 backpacks to schools during the 2014-15 school year, the fact that 60 children still "need food on the weekend was an astounding number to me," Brown says.

The problem, as she has come to understand it, she says, is not that there isn't enough food. Rather, "the problem is the food isn't getting to people that need it, either through lack of public awareness or pride on the part of people who don't want others to know they can't quite cut it." The drive to feed children has consumed her, to the point she dreams of bare shelves and children going hungry.

"I've taken on this, and I don't want to look failure in the face," Brown says. "I don't want to fail the children who are now dependent on this."

Children missing meals has a raft of health consequences, say advocates, including vulnerability to illness, lack of cognitive development, behavioral and educational issues at school and lower graduation rates. If they are not dealing with the gnawing pain of hunger, that may only be because all their family can afford is cheap, highly processed, high-calorie food.

Hunger, says Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is but one piece of the much larger challenge of tackling poverty, which includes addressing income inequality, a living wage, access to healthcare, along with federal issues including immigration reform. "The system doesn't work for everyone," Romero says. "How do we ensure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable? How do we support people in a vulnerable part of their life so they can get back on their feet and support their families?"

Brown says she can't solve poverty. All she can do is put food in children's hands. "Buy a six pack of applesauce or a can of soup. It costs a buck. Bring that food over to my basement or the club. It's that simple."

Such a simple act profoundly impacted Lulu and her mother. When a Boys & Girls Club official asked Jane if she would let the club help her with weekend food, "My mom cried that day more than once," Lulu says. "Working full time, I didn't feel I had the right to stand in line for the food bank," Jane says. While she had some food, she simply didn't have enough to feed her children. "I didn't want to take from someone who had less." That was why, she continues, the backpack program meant so much to her. "It really took away a lot of that guilt for me. Because this was food that someone had donated to our children. This was someone who wanted to help with my kids, and I guess I could accept that."

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It's tough trying to get the backpacks to the car without the children opening them, she says. "When they get home, it's like opening a present. The kids love the fact it comes with fruit snacks and granola bars with chocolate." The children enthuse over the contents, planning the meals they will make, Italian one night, and, if there's a can of refried beans, Mexican another.

Hunger, Jane says, is everywhere, you just don't see it. "Look to your left and look to your right, and I can guarantee you you're looking at someone that does not have enough food," she says. It's not a county or a town away, it's but one person away, "and they're not going to tell you. There's a big shame factor in it. Everybody's raised to believe you have enough to eat, that you'll be able to provide for your family. And it's just really hard to stand up and say, 'My kids are going to bed hungry, I need help.'"

Utah State Office of Education's child-care program coordinator Matt Anderson says that while there are limited opportunities for federal funding for weekend food programs, "not a lot of our programs address hunger that may occur during the weekend." While the state channels just under $40 million annually from the liquor-sales tax to the child nutrition program run by the Utah State Office of Education, which contributes to school-food programs, nonprofit agencies dedicated to emergency food funding might count themselves lucky to receive the crumbs from the table. Under $1 million annually goes to nonprofit emergency food agencies, and $290,000 per year to help with distribution of food to pantries. That leaves the federally funded food stamp and WIC programs to feed those in Utah who fit within its income criteria and nonprofit emergency food agencies to largely fend for themselves.

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For a child to be eligible for a free school meal, a family of four in Utah has to have a gross income of $2,628 or less a month. UAH's Woolford notes that a three-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake City rents for $1,300 a month. While there are a few breakfast and numerous lunch summer feeding sites across the Wasatch front, that still leaves annual holidays, winter vacations, the end of summer vacations (many school sites close early), snow days and weekends when children can struggle to find food. "At the end of the day, people are falling through the cracks for sure," Woolford says.

Advocates bluntly caution neither to judge nor blame parents who cannot provide food for their children, despite the seeming abundance of services.

Bountiful Pantry director Lorna Koci started a weekend food program three years ago in Davis County. She says it has grown from 155 kids at three schools to currently 702 kids at 15 schools, identified by teachers as at-risk of food insecurity over the weekend. They receive several pounds of food on Fridays to take home during the scholastic year, although the program doesn't operate during the vacations.

While there are some parents Koci terms "missing-in-action," she says there are many factors that shape why children can be hungry over the weekend. "People won't access the food pantry because they are not registered citizens," she says. "They are fearful of providing information necessary to register at food pantries." Along with embarrassment, pride can also get in the way, she notes, of people accessing food-assistance services. Lack of access due to pantries being open only a few hours—not the case, she says, with Bountiful, which has nine openings per week—and lack of awareness also contribute. "We still have people come in and say, 'I wish I'd known you were here.' "

Koci cites one single mother who is concerned that her ex-husband does not have enough food to eat when it's his weekend to care for their children. "She knows they can take the pantry pack with them." Then, there's the single mother working as a Walmart cashier, who recognized the items an Eagle Scout was buying for the pantry program and started crying. Her daughter is in the Bountiful program. She told the scout's mother, Koci says, "how helpful it is to her that she has extra food, that her daughter can have something to eat if she gets home late from work."

Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake Vice President Bob Dunn started the South Valley club 37 years ago, with a budget of $19,000 and a staff of two. Even back then, he recalls in an email, there were several club attendees without food on the weekend. Staff would take a bucket of fried chicken and mashed potatoes to a family they knew had little for the weekend. "Not just weekend food needs but access to health care (especially dental care), clothing (especially shoes) and other needs have always been a problem for our kids and their families, and we have partnered with many agencies and volunteers over the years to try and meet these needs," he writes in an email.

Without any direct funding to address the lack of weekend food for children, partnerships with local markets to take advantage of day-old food items on Fridays were ultimately little more than "small Band-Aids," he writes. For a while, the clubs were open on Saturdays until budget cuts forced them to close. "I really want to start a Saturday program again."

Lynda Brown's history with the Boys & Girls club dates back to one of her brothers literally laying the foundation for the building and getting local members of the Murray Elks Club to donate construction materials. Brown was a registered nurse for seven years, until she dedicated her life to caring for a quadriplegic brother handicapped from a basic-training accident during the Korean War, a second brother laid low by a stroke and subsequently her elderly parents.

After her husband, onetime Deseret News sports reporter Tom Brown, unexpectedly died six years ago, Brown found herself "needing something to do." For several years, she ran Utah's Congressional Award program, helping children earn medals in honor of their volunteer service. She also got a local bus company to donate a 62-seat bus to address the Boys & Girls Club's transportation needs.

When Brown told the club she wanted to help children with weekend food shortages, the club identified children in need through its teachers and staff. Brown set about putting seven meals in each backpack, "not full-course meals, but something these kids can open and not be hungry." The staff told the children if they needed food on the weekend, to grab a backpack. Brown was told the recipients wanted to remain anonymous. "The privacy issue seems to be so strong, this anonymity makes it easier for them to accept help," she recalls being told.

Brown first started providing backpacks to the clubs in February 2015. Two breakfasts, two lunches and three dinners make up the meals that go into a backpack. Brown unzips a backpack on a table in her basement, then turns to the plastic shelves she's erected to store food. She grabs two packs of oatmeal, spaghetti and meatballs, a can of sauce, a cup of ramen noodles, fruit cup, two puddings, two fruit rolls and granola bars, putting each in the backpack. "And that's a backpack," she says triumphantly. Then she reaches for the next. The guiding principle as to weight is that a 5-year old girl can pick it up, she says.

From the beginning, the most perplexing question Brown faced has been how to keep her pantry's shelves, and thus the backpacks, filled. Initially, she funded the food out of her own pocket, prowling grocery store aisles for bargains and wrangling with managers for the best deals on canned goods. Aid for Brown came from the Utah Department of Corrections after she told her son-in-law, Jeremy Shaw, of the children's plight. Shaw supervises a division that investigates inmate crimes at the Draper prison. In conversations with Brown about her desire to help the children, Shaw says, "It hit me this was something that would be a great thing to be involved in." He organized a small food drive among the 22 employees at his office. Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook subsequently elected to extend a department-wide invitation to contribute to Shaw's food drive.

In April 2015, a food drive among the prison's 2,300 staff resulted in a large white truck pulling up outside Brown's home. "They filled up my basement with food," she says, producing 490 filled backpacks. "It was Lynda's first bulk donation where she didn't personally have to buy those things out of her own budget," Shaw says.

Then Brown learned that the Murray and Midvale clubs weren't the only ones with children facing bare cupboards and empty stomachs on the weekend. After she asked the Boys & Girls Club to check with other branches in the state, the Tooele club announced they needed 30 backpacks by Friday. "Their kids are starving, and I said, 'No, I can't.' It just wrenched my heart out." For now, she says, she simply does not have the resources.

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The idea of using backpacks for children to take food home isn't new. Since the late 1990s, Feeding America has promoted a backpack program to food agencies across the United States.

Federal regulations require that the Boys & Girls Club, which provides hot dinners during the week through the Utah Food Bank's Kids' Cafe program, cannot also draw upon the backpack program. "The contents of the pack has to be kid-friendly, so kids will eat it, and kids will fix it, and it has to be products kids will eat," UFB's chief development officer Ginette Bott says.

The Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah [CCS] provides food to children in need for weekends and holidays. CCS's program is called "Bridging the Gap," and involves a red beverage-delivery truck employees call "Clifford" visiting low-income elementary schools on Fridays. Students take home "two bags of healthy, easy-to-prepare meals and snacks," according to CCS's website.

Advocates debate the value of the backpack program, some arguing they target more children than their families. Feeding America has asked state food banks to come up with new ideas to replace the backpack program. Bott thinks the backpack program is "a good concept," but adds as more students need to be fed, it becomes expensive and time-taxing for administrative staff at the schools.

As of September 2015, the Utah Food Bank is trying a new tack, launching a mobile pantry that will target schools. With the help of corporate sponsors, "starting Sept. 30, schools will receive mobile pantry visits on their playgrounds once a month, during the week," Bott says. The mobile pantry will allow families to access a greater variety of food to take home. The focus on mobile pantries has meant that the backpacks "have taken a second seat for us," Bott says.

While agencies may be leaving the backpack program behind, Brown works with what she has. "I'm not naïve enough to think I can do it by myself," she says. "Nor arrogant enough to think I can do it all. I'm feeling my way into this the best I can."

One mid-June afternoon in 2015, Brown visits the University of Phoenix accompanied by a City Weekly reporter. A business manager marvels at how, "You're kind of just going month to month on this." Brown confides to her, "My nightmare is I won't be able to fill those packs." The university commits to a food drive by its alumni during two weeks in September, which means Brown can count on two more weeks being covered in terms of sufficient food.

She then goes to visit Murray City Mayor Ted Eyre. Eyre points out that Utah's population is predicted to double to 5.4 million within 35 years. "That doubles all the backpacks I need to do," Brown quips. Eyre signs off on a food drive among the city's employees that should help Brown through two months, she estimates.

Brown's next stop is the Boys & Girls Club in Murray. She issues a sharp, piercing whistle, which silences the chatter of children in several seated rows. What she learns from the impromptu Q & A with the children is that while some do not need backpacks, others cannot access them because their parents do not bring them on Fridays.

"We need to be a little more discerning," she says, about which children get backpacks. Later she emails, "When you see these kids ask for more and tell you they never get that food at home, it kinda makes you know they don't have a lot of choices."

In late July, Brown met with LeAnn Saldivar, chief executive of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake. From that conversation, Brown learned that if she started providing backpacks for children at the Salt Lake area clubs, she would need to add to her output of weekly backpacks another 80 to 100. They agreed to start off with a half-dozen backpacks. Brown asked for help from Saldivar's board to develop more food drives.

Putting a few cans in a box at a Sunday church service is one thing, but to run a food drive takes work, Brown says. She lies awake at night, pondering how to make food drives easier, to encourage more volunteers. "It's like baking a cake. You don't want to figure it out from scratch how to do it—you need a recipe."

Brown's generosity has made its mark on the club and its members. In late 2014, she was named Volunteer of the Year and celebrated her 70th birthday at the club. "You have not lived until you've had 300 children singing 'Happy Birthday' to you," she says. "I was bawling."

Utah Food Bank's Bott applauds those individuals who try to address hunger in their neighborhood but also expresses concerns regarding food-handling safety, product recall notices and sustainability.

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Brown says media publicity surrounding food recalls in the recent case of boxes of mac & cheese being taken off shelves nationwide, meant she alerted fellow volunteers to check all the boxes donated by Corrections to separate any that were in the recall.

While all the items she puts into backpacks are factory-sealed, being able to sustain the food drives is something that constantly nags at Brown. As she learned with her husband's early death, "no one knows how long their own 'sustainability' will last. Hopefully, I have started something that does not require more than a desire to keep it going." The only drawback to her program, she says, "is if the food donations can't keep up with the expansion."

If Brown's backpack program were to fold, Jane and her daughters would have to retrench. "We'd go back to the pizza option, unfortunately," Jane says, referring to buying a pizza and rationing out several slices to each child twice a day on the weekend. "It's not as healthy, it's not ideal. We'd go back to trying to get invited to someone's house for Sunday dinner, that kind of stuff. We'd pull out the casserole again, which the kids hate. I can stretch those really far."

UFB's Bott says that, ultimately, all the federal, state and nonprofit agencies dedicated to tackling hunger in Utah, while sometimes overlapping each other, have one thing in common: "We all hope there's a child at the crossroads [of their attention] to benefit." Like many in her field, she came to it out of a passion to aid the hungry. Yet, she says, "I am haunted by, 'Am I doing enough for these kids?' For those of us working to help, we have to recognize so many things you can't control."

Jane recalls her former husband predicting she wouldn't make it on her own and would "crawl back to him" after they got divorced. "She hasn't," says her oldest daughter. "She won't," adds Lulu. But despite such determination, things recently have only got more difficult. Jane lost her eight-year job as a nurse in April. While she has an associate's degree and extensive work experience, she can't find work. "I apply for jobs, but I don't get call-backs." As she talks about having to sell her blood twice a week, Lulu goes unbidden into a bedroom and returns with a tissue box for her mother.

Losing her job made May a tough month for the family. When Lulu got $20 for her birthday, "I took us all out to eat at McDonalds," she says.

In June, Jane became eligible for food stamps. For a family of three, she gets $500 a month for food. "Who spends that much money on food?" she marvels. Without the federal government's support, particularly Medicaid to cover her daughter's $1,000-a-month medications, "we would be absolutely dead in the water." Brown's backpack program is another element in what helps keep Jane's family afloat.

Brown's ongoing search for collaborators on food drives to keep the backpacks full has been fruitful. The Parley's 7th Singles Ward of 700 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is doing a two-month food drive in August and September. She's even found two men to help with bin placement and retrieval, whom she nicknames "the heavies."

In July 2015, after the Boys & Girls Club of Salt Lake and the Greater area announced they were merging, Brown says, the club is taking on new space. The plan is, "they will include a large room for food donations and the staging and building of the weekend backpacks." That means she and other volunteers will be able to run the program directly out of the club.

Department of Corrections' supervisor Jeremy Shaw says his takeaway from working with Brown is clear: "We need to stop this [weekend food-insecurity], we need to figure out what's going on, why this is happening, rather than just leaving her out there taking care of it."

Nothing, it seems, will deter Brown. "How, in good conscience, can I walk away from that kind of need, one that is real, legitimate and staring you in your face in your own backyard?"

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