SALT LAKE CITY — What started as a Pioneer Day celebration with a few interns and a bucket of home-brewed root beer in Sen. Mike Lee’s Washington, D.C., office a few years ago morphed into an annual event with hundreds of people called Flavors of Utah.

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of trucking Utah-made food across the country to sample in the nation’s capital, local companies donated the products to hospitals across the state.

Lee’s office and Associated Food workers assembled 500 food bags containing beef jerky, potato chips, taffy and other items for delivery to nurses and doctors on the front lines of the pandemic.

“This year we’re shifting the event from a food-tasting model to a food-giving model,” Lee, R-Utah, said.

Lee, Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, food industry leaders and hospital executives gathered in a park next to LDS Hospital to talk about the event Friday, a week before the July 24 state holiday.

Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association, praised health care providers for putting themselves at risk to help others during the pandemic. But he said a “new group of first responders,” those who work in the food industry, should also be recognized.

“The people who are out there working in the stores really are heroes,” he said. “These are not high-wage people that are going out there. They are people that are showing day after day.”

Davis said the Utah grocery and convenience stores have fared pretty well the past few months, but restaurants are struggling.

“The hard thing has been on the production end of things because it’s just been hard to get people. We’ve had COVID in the production facilities,” he said. “But overall, I’ve been really proud to be associated with the industry because they have soldiered through.”

Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association, said health care workers who have worked nonstop the past four months are tired and frustrated.

“So many of these infections they’re seeing probably are preventable. Indeed, one of the safest places in society to go is to a hospital. Our infection rate among hospital workers and people coming to the hospital is remarkably low, almost in the handfuls,” he said.

McAdams, who spent eight days in the hospital with COVID-19 in March, said the flavor of Utah that makes him the most proud is that people in the state come together regardless of perspective or political persuasion.

Pioneer Day, he said, is a time for Utahns to come together.

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