Sometimes the numbers are big — like 410,000, the number of Utahns who are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t know for certain where their next meal is coming from, according to the Utah Food Bank.
Sometimes the numbers are small — like $12, the price of two pounds of hamburger, as Ginette Bott, the food bank’s president, noticed on a recent trip to the grocery store.
“If you have a lot of kids, that’s maybe one meal,” said Bott, who’s highly attuned to how such a price will hit the families who visit the food bank’s warehouse for emergency food.
The efforts to help families who are food insecure also come in all sizes, from providing thousands of meals a day to serving just a few families at a time. And those working against food insecurity can always use help.
[Read more: Two Utah food pantries are closing. Blame red tape.]
The Utah Food Bank, founded in 1904 and now serving all 29 counties in the state, deals in big amounts of food. Last year, the food bank distributed 70.2 million pounds of food, 58.5 million meals.
When families come to get food, Bott said, the food bank doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Recipients don’t need to provide a social security number, say what their income is, or even give an address. The goal, she said, is to give aid as quickly and directly as possible.
“We ask how many people live in your household, and we ask how many of those are under 18 so we know how many kids,” she said. “That’s all we need to know, and people can get food.”
In the last two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, Bott said the food bank has seen three times the number of families as before the pandemic.
“Right now, we just don’t seem to have any relief,” she said, citing the different expenses that are rising for Utah families, including food, affordable housing and daycare. “We see, all the time, two and three families living together. … It’s great to have that support structure and do that, but that’s a lot of expenses they’re trying to meet.”
A business gives back
Vivi and Amy Wanderley-Britt, who head the 360 Degrees Restaurant Group, say social justice is part of their mission.
At their three restaurants — Salt Lake City’s Pig in a Jelly Jar, Pig Kitchen in Holladay, and Ogden’s WB’s Eatery — the couple sells coffee and jam, with proceeds going to Nuzzles & Co. pet rescue, and vintage-style socks that raise money for women’s shelters. They pay their service staff an hourly wage, rather than relying on tips — and any cash left on the tables goes to a program close to Vivi Wanderley-Britt’s heart: A partnership with Volunteers of America, providing food to economically vulnerable kids.
“We developed a relationship with VOA in 2020, donating fresh food that’s of the same quality that we give to our guests — that’s important for us,” Wanderly-Britt said.
Every week, her staff prepares ground beef and pasta, organic salad greens and bread. The menu was carefully considered to maximize nutrients and avoid triggering food allergies (no seafood, for instance). Spices are avoided, since kids have more sensitive palates.
On Monday mornings, 360 drops off food at the VOA Women and Children’s Center in Murray, and on Tuesdays, sy the VOA Youth Center in Salt Lake City. Once COVID-19 numbers come down, Wanderly-Britt said, they would like to send its staff to cook on-site. The company is also looking for a nonprofit partner in Ogden, so that they can serve that community, too.
“Something we always say to our staff, you need to put love behind it when you’re cooking, because people will taste it on the other end,” she said. “The same love we put in to cook the food for our guests, we put in to make the VOA meals. I think it’s actually more important to put love, more love, into this, because you’re giving someone else hope, right? So they can get back on their feet and get back on track.”
Not letting food go to waste
Waste Less Solutions, a nonprofit operating since 2018, is in the business of rescuing food before it goes to the landfill.
Since the group started, said founder Dana Williamson, Waste Less has rescued 587,000 pounds of food — about 489,000 meals’ worth. The organization has a cadre of volunteers who can rescue food about to be thrown out, and a network of businesses — grocery stores, caterers, produce wholesalers, even the Downtown Farmers Market — that donate their leftover goods.
Waste Less recently received a $20,000 grant from 100 Women Who Care, a Salt Lake City civic group, to launch a pilot program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake — to provide ready-to-eat meals made from rescued food.
Williamson, who serves on the Boys & Girls Clubs’ board, said the program addresses a need not always recognized: The lack of a place, or time, to cook.
“There’s a barrier sometimes in being able to utilize food in an easy and convenient way,” said Amanda Ree Hughes, president of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake. “If they don’t have a way of preparing food, or an understanding of how to use it, then it’s not really solving their problem.”
Some families are in transitional housing, or living in motels, or outright experiencing homelessness. They may not have access to a full kitchen, or may be working so many hours they don’t have time to cook. That drives many to rely on unhealthy convenience foods.
“We know there is a correlation between food insecurity and obesity,” Hughes said. “What can you fix if you only have access to a microwave? You get foods that are processed and high sugar, high salt, high fat. Eating healthy costs a lot of money — fresh produce, fresh meats, things like that.”
The program now serves 15 families a week through the Midvale Boys & Girls Club, and there are plans to expand if the pilot is successful. Williamson works with chef Adam Kreisel of Chaia Cucina, who plans menus based on what food happens to be available from the current donors, Restaurant Depot and the U.S. Food Store. Those supplies are taken to a rented commercial kitchen every Tuesday.
“We call Adam and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve got, what do you think we should make?’” Williamson said. “My favorite, because it was such a surprise to me, was we had some sweet potatoes, which we roasted, and dug out the insides and mashed. He used that in a pasta sauce. It was a beautiful orange color. And we snuck in some extra vegetables that way.”
The food is cooled overnight, and delivered by volunteers on Wednesdays. “We have them go in and package it,” Williamson said. “One of our big things is feeding people with dignity, so we put nice labels on it, and present an item that we think is restaurant-worthy.”
Williamson’s experience — rescuing more than a half-million pounds of food over the last four years — illustrates what she sees as the true nature of food insecurity in America.
“It’s not a supply problem,” she said. “It’s a distribution problem.”
How you can help
Bott, at the food bank, said any organization fighting food insecurity needs “the big three: food, time, and money.”
• The Utah Food Bank is accepting volunteers, and always welcomes food donations.
“An easy rule of thumb, if you’re shopping and buying something your family would enjoy, double up,” Bott said. “A lot of the grocery stores throughout the state have a barrel or a box by the front door, and you can buy products and leave them right there.”
Go to UtahFoodBank.org for information on how to make a donation.
• Waste Less Solutions needs volunteers to assist with the prepared meal program for Boys & Girls Club. (A food handler’s permit is a requirement to participate.) The group also is looking for food donors, including backyard gardeners who can drop extra produce at coolers located throughout the metro area during the growing season. “As spring comes, we’re looking to funnel the food from the farmers’ market and backyard gardeners,” Williams says.
Go to wastelesssolutions.org to learn how to help.
• The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake is accepting more volunteers as COVID-19 case numbers drop. Its greatest need is for volunteers to serve snacks and meals at clubs, to free up staff to work directly with kids. Volunteers must undergo a background check and an orientation process, and must commit to a regular schedule. “One or two days a week for an hour or two at a time would be the best situation right now,” Hughes said.
To volunteer, call the administration office at 801-322-4411, or contact nutrition specialist Ryan Van Brunt at email@example.com.