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West Valley City Journal

Kearns High coach tackles food scarcity with his athletes

Jan 04, 2022 09:03AM ● By Peri Kinder

The 2021–22 Kearns High Football team is making news on and off the field after the head coach started a food pantry for the athletes. (Photo courtesy Natoya Chung)

Imagine being a 200-pound lineman on a high school football team, fueling an intense practice with a bowl of Froot Loops. That’s the challenge Kearns High School Head Football Coach Matt Rickards faces as he prepares his team for competition each year.

Starting as a KHS assistant coach in 2008, Rickards recently finished his ninth year as head coach with a 7-5 season and an appearance in the 2021 state high school football playoffs. But creating a championship team with athletes who don’t always have healthy food available is an ongoing challenge.

“It’s always been an issue that our kids aren’t getting enough to eat,” Rickards said. “They’d come out to practice and didn’t have energy. I’d ask them, ‘Did you have breakfast or lunch?’ Some of these kids just don’t have enough food at their house.”

When a volunteer at a local food bank heard about the problems faced by the athletes, he offered to bring food to the school twice a week. Now, every Thursday and Saturday, Rickards stocks a fridge at KHS with healthy foods to hand out to athletes or anyone at the school who might need an extra meal during the day.

Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, found that 355,550 people in Utah, including 113,700 children, face hunger. Educators see that need every day in local schools. 

Utah State Sen. Karen Mayne heard about the KHS food pantry and said the situation brought her to tears. As a resident of West Valley City and a para-educator on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for 20 years, she knows her constituents struggle with food insecurity. 

Mayne took to her social media platforms to issue a call to action, asking residents and alumni of four west-side high schools to donate food or money to help address the problem. To start things off, she met with educators at Kearns, Taylorsville, Hunter and Granger high schools, donating $300 to each location to help students get the food they need. 

“This is a need. This is a real need,” Mayne said. “A lot of the time, high school kids are overlooked because they’re older, they’re proud and they are silent. I wanted my donation to stay in my senate district. People give money to me and they know I’ll keep the money in my district. I want to bring awareness to the problem of food scarcity. It’s prevalent everywhere.”

Utah State Sen. Luz Escamilla introduced Senate Bill 141 in 2020 to create a task force to address food insecurity in the state. It’s not just the lack of food, but the lack of nutritional, healthy and fresh foods that the legislation hopes to address. 

Many students live off ramen noodles, sugary cereals and processed foods, which don’t contain the nutrients needed to fuel the brain and body. Also, many athletes on the west side come from homes where extended family members live together, and often the food just runs out. 

“I have kids trying to compete, but they can’t compete at a high level,” Rickards said. “We are competing against other athletes and teams that are fully nourished.”

As his athletes are provided with healthier foods, Rickards hopes to see results in the players’ energy levels and physical development. More protein and fresh produce will help build muscle and speed, increase endurance and help with clearer thinking. 

“I think I will notice a difference in the next couple of months in the weight room,” he said. “I already notice kids showing up with more energy at practice. The next step is teaching athletes how to prepare the food that’s being donated. I can give a kid two-and-a-half pounds of ground beef, but what’s he going to do with it? Donations are random, so one day we’ll have pork roast or sausage or bananas. How can we help them make a meal?”

Rickards is talking with the KHS athletic trainer, coming up with solutions to educate students on food preparation and basic cooking skills, and Mayne will continue to shine a light on food scarcity issues in her area.

“I don’t want people hungry in my senate district, but they are, and I know that,” she said. “This is happening and we need awareness.”