Pandemic has eased, jobs are back — why are Utah food pantries still busy?

One word: inflation. How those rising prices, especially at the gas pump, are straining family budgets and forcing residents to get grocery help.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Isaac McDonald stocks shelves in the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

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When the COVID-19 outbreak struck in 2020, the need for food assistance climbed as Utahns hunkered down and jobs perished.

Now that the pandemic has been normalized — due to the presence of vaccines and the easing of restrictions — and many jobs have returned, the demand for help with food has … remained high.

Why? After all, food banks expected emergency conditions to let up once the state and its residents found more stability in life amid the virus.

Then 8.6% annual inflation entered the equation, and those hopes for diminished demand for help vanished.

Kate, who asked to be identified only by her middle name while discussing her need for aid, has been staggered by the sticker shock. Soaring prices have even limited the food banks she can drive to in Kearns, where she lives.

As a part-time teacher in an after-school program, money is tight.

“You have to pinch pennies somewhere else,” she said, “in order to be able to afford what you need.”

Kate volunteers in a food pantry in Kearns, where she gets most of her groceries. She then tries to complement those supplies at discount produce stores. It becomes, she said, sort of a scavenger hunt.

“If you just have a part-time job,” she said, “there’s not a lot of money to go around to pay your other bills.”

Kate tries to be mindful of how she uses water and electricity, but the prices at the pump can be budgetbusters.

“The biggest chunk out of the paycheck is to fill up the car with gas at $60,” she said. “And this is a small passenger car.”

Kate is hardly alone as inflation continues to bite into paychecks and pantries fill in to keep Utahns fed.

“Families that were in need of food during the pandemic are still struggling,” said Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank. “And now the high cost of food is making it more difficult.”

Overall, the volume of patrons at the Utah Food Bank has remained relatively consistent over the past two years, Bott said. “People we had thought would step away from the services have not, so the numbers are staying consistently high.”

The food bank is in the process of expanding its warehouses to meet demand in St. George, southern Utah County and southeastern Utah’s San Juan County to provide more frequent service in those areas.

This fiscal year, the food bank distributed around 54 million meals throughout the state. Though this has been consistent with former years, some other food administrators have seen an increased need for emergency food services.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erika Gee shelves inventory in the basement of the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

“We are seeing more people now than we have at any point before the pandemic,” said Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, which operates pantries in downtown Salt Lake City and the west side’s Poplar Grove neighborhood.

In May, the pantries served 2,260 households. That’s 6% more than in April and 93% more than May 2021. “And June,” Bailey added, “has continued to be very busy.”

With the rising prices of food, gas and housing, “people are under more pressure than they have been in a long time, just in terms of trying to come up with enough to get through the day or the week or the month,” Bailey said. “And that’s when people generally turn to food pantries. And we think that’s going to get worse.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laura Shroyer makes ham and cheese sandwiches in the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

As usual during the summer break, many students have stopped getting breakfast and lunch at school, leaving a gap in the budgets of families that juggle to make ends meet. But some special programs at schools provide these missing meals until classes resume.

Apart from that, the state’s COVID-19 emergency allotment for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, remains in place, giving families at least an additional $95 a month.

That might change in coming months if the public health emergency on the federal and state level is declared over, warned Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger.

It is unclear when the emergency declarations could be canceled, but people would have 90 days’ notice before anything changes.

“The current increase under emergency allotments for SNAP is temporary,” Cornia said. “And people who are getting those benefits need to be prepared when those end.”

Numbers have also remained consistent for this benefit. More than 31,100 people received SNAP benefits in Salt Lake County in April, a 0.6% uptick from last year.

For Kate, all of the options available for people who struggle with putting food on the table and paying other bills give her hope. A drive-thru that gives out leftover roses or COVID-19 testing kits usually brightens her day.

“It’s such a feeling of care,” she said, especially when the community comes together to offer information about food banks and resources for neighbors. “This is how village life should be.”

If you need food assistance, visit utahfoodbank.org or call 211 toll-free. An operator can help find the nearest pantry. People can also donate food or money or volunteer to help the food bank.

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.