Two Utah food pantries are closing. Blame red tape.

At odds over clerical requirements, Utah Food Bank and Utah Community Action are ceasing their partnership.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Food is handed out at a Provo food pantry in May 2021. Two pantries run by Utah Community Action in Salt Lake County are closing at the end of February.

West Valley City • Brenda and Kelly made it a routine to go to a West Valley City food pantry run by Utah Community Action. Every month they would stay in line in their car to get items to complement what they had in their fridge.

“We used to receive [federal food assistance],” said Kelly, who asked to be identified only by his first name while discussing their need for aid. “Then they determined that we earned too much. But, really, earning too much is just paying all your bills and not having enough for food. It’s kind of hard.”

Utah Community Action’s nutrition and emergency food department operates pantries in West Valley City and Midvale. They have been reliable resources for individuals and families struggling to make ends meet.

But, at the end of this month, the pantries won’t be operating as usual.

The reason is a conflict between Utah Community Action and Utah Food Bank policies. The food bank, which provides most of the goods for the pantries, requires its clients only to state their names, how many people are in their household and how many children they feed to collect groceries.

Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank, highlighted that this is the way her group expects the 227 pantries it supplies throughout the state to operate.

“In order for us, being Utah Food Bank, to be in compliance with the product that we are giving them for free, they need to follow our guidelines,” Bott said. “They can’t ask for Social Security [numbers]. They can’t ask for wage verification.”

[Read more: There are 410,000 Utahns who are hungry. Here’s how you can help.]

But the nonprofit Utah Community Action has to comply with federal grants it has received to run its programs, requiring its pantries to ask for more information from those who use the service.

“The funding they have,” said Jennifer Godfrey, CEO of Utah Community Action, “is not nearly as restrictive as the funding I have.”

For its part, the Utah Food Bank has its own rules to follow.

“If we allow them to go on and ask for all that stuff … we’re out of compliance with the groups that we get food from,” Bott said. “Then that means we would be in jeopardy of being an entity that could help.

“It really is a shame,” she added, “that something as simple as a simple clerical procedure can’t be adapted or adjusted to be sure all those folks are receiving food.”

Either way, plans are in the works to continue feeding those in need — even after the pantries in West Valley City and Midvale cease operations come March.

Around 2020, Godfrey said, the Utah Food Bank began sending out mobile food pantries. It manages 13 mobile pantries all around Salt Lake County.

“We started to have conversations with them in regards to transitioning our operations to their mobile pantries because they can reach more people that way,” Godfrey said. “It is faster, in terms of service, and they are willing to serve the communities in which we’re currently in.

“As partners,” she said, “both of us intend to make sure the community remains served.”

Utah Community Action is collaborating with the Utah Food Bank by supplying information about which areas need the most food assistance. It is assessing where people who go to the pantries are from and whether there’s a need for additional drops to serve them.

The groups also hope to have the mobile pantries go to 8446 S. Harrison St., Midvale, and 3060 s. Lester St., West Valley City, where the Utah Community Action pantries now operate, said Godfrey. “We’re being very cognizant that there is not a gap of services within the community. And, truly, the clients on the other end should not feel the transition at all.”

Bott says this shift might not be easy, however.

“When a pantry like this closes, it takes time before people recognize that service isn’t there and they start to reach out for help,” she said. “It wouldn’t be like I could go out in a day or two with a mobile pantry and say, ‘We’re here.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

Besides, the current Utah Community Action pantries have the capacity to operate at higher volumes than a mobile operation.

In the meantime, Brenda and Kelly, who just heard about the changes, are contemplating where to go for food assistance. They have visited some other pantries in churches in Murray and downtown Salt Lake City, but none offers as much as this program.

“This kind of sucks. They’re one of the big ones,” Kelly said. “They give good food. It’s not always expired and the stuff doesn’t always go bad.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

Correction • Feb. 21, 1:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Brenda’s name and attributions to Kelly’s quotes.