Summer dinner program serves Utah families
Thomason Tsosie serves up burritos to West Valley kids. (Keyra Kristoffersen/City Journals)
Summer is a delightful time of year when families can be together while kids are out of school. But sometimes, families need extra help stretching their budget to provide nutritional meals for their children without the school’s help. That’s why the Utah Community Action created the Summer Dinner Program through their Head Start schools around the Salt Lake valley.
“Communicating with the community, seeing their faces, the excitement that they get and enjoyment, it's awesome,” said Thomason Tsosie, assistant manager at the Head Start central kitchen for the past nine years. “I love doing it.”
According to their website, Head Start is, “a federal program designed to help young children get basic medical attention, make a smoother transition from early childhood to the school environment, and get on the path to self-sufficiency.”
Utah Community Action and other Utah non-profit organizations administer the Head Start program to low-income families in several locations such as West Valley City, South Salt Lake, Murray and Magna. The program is offered for children ages 3-5, while Early Head Start is available for children 0-2.
“It really helps to stretch my summer budget,” said Melissa Nakata, who has been coming for the last two years with her kids, ages 5 and 8. “It's nice to get the kids out, it's nice to be in the air.”
The Summer Dinner Program began six years ago as a hot dinner meal inspired by the free sack lunch and snack program offered to low-income families when school isn’t in session. It’s sponsored by the county and Utahns Against Hunger.
Utahns Against Hunger partnered with the Utah Food Bank, the Community Presbyterian Church, the Salt Lake Community Action and Head Start to fill the nutritional gap by providing free food throughout the summer months at local parks.
“We heard about the lunches so we thought about doing it later on in the day, in the evening for kids,” said Tsosie. “We try to get a hot meal at least three to five times a week.”
With the Head Start dinner program, everyone in the community is invited to come to one of the four locations and get dinner. Children under 18 years receive it for free and adults pay $3. The menu is created by the Central Kitchen’s manager and chef and a nutritionist and changes every day to include a wide array of options throughout the summer.
This year, a grill night has been added as well.
“We try all ethnicities—tacos, Asian food, Japanese vegetables. We've got a lot of food we can play with, so we try and hit as much as we can,” Tsosie said. “We accommodate a lot of allergies as well.”
The program also employs volunteers through their Vista program, a subsidiary of AmeriCorps specific to Head Start. Volunteers serve in 10-week long assignments like teaching kids how to grow food at a farm or like Kaylee Bustillos, getting to help at the dinner locations.
“I love it. I think it's not only a good idea but I get to be active,” said Bustillos.
Bustillos spends her days getting the word out to the community by passing out flyers before loading the food into the truck and heading out to the schools where she helps serve the families and organizes activities for the kids.
“Meeting the kids, it's so important. I love the kids. I love the energy that they bring and the fact that we get to help them. I would love to do this every summer. It's good, it's healthy, and fresh,” she said.
The parents are grateful for the efforts of the Head Start group and have formed friendships and groups with each other and staff along with their kids.
“I really like it, it's an awesome program. I come to get my kids out, so they don’t have gamer brain,” said Stephanie Potter, a parent who has been bringing her kids, ages 11 and 16, for the last two years. “I met some of the staff and they told him (my son) he had to take at least two bites, because I couldn't get him to eat no vegetables and they kind of helped.”
The Summer Dinner Program at Head Start locations will run Monday-Friday, June 5 to Aug. 18, except July 3-4, 24-25 and is open to the public.
For more information about the Summer Dinner Program and Head Start locations, visit: www.utahca.org.To find out more about the Summer Food Program and park locations, visit: www.uah.org/food-assistance/summer-food/.