This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
A dozen lines of vehicles build up and then slowly, but steadily, funnel into three lanes. With their car trunks open, people drive through three stations at the end of a church parking lot.
Volunteers fill trucks with Lunchables packs, bags of apples, dry milk, bread, chips, lemon juice, mayonnaise and other food items donated to the Utah Food Bank.
The mobile food pantry is a way for 74-year-old Bob Ruff and his wife, who both work in education, to feed a six-person household while they go two months without a paycheck.
Groceries distributed every Monday afternoon from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward parking lot off the intersection of 2200 West and 6200 South in Taylorsville help families stretch their budget and ensure they can feed their children during summer break.
Hundreds of thousands of Utahns experience food insecurity, whether that means they can’t afford high-quality or preferred groceries or are skipping meals. Crushing housing costs are contributing to less money for food. People find themselves making hard choices while stretching their budgets, and that often impacts their spending on groceries.
Still, those who aren’t missing meals or stressing about where the next one will come from may not fully understand, said Ginette Bott, executive director of the Utah Food Bank.
The nonprofit’s biggest challenge is ignorance, Bott said.
“People will still be surprised to hear that we have hungry people in Utah,” she said.
That’s true even as the problem is getting worse, both according to data from 2021 and the need Utah Food Bank is seeing now.
Rate has shifted up and down since 2017
In 2017, nearly 374,000 Utahs experienced food insecurity. That includes people who have reduced quality, variety or desirability in their diet but aren’t missing meals. It also includes people with disrupted eating patterns and who have cut the amount they eat.
That dropped in 2018 then rose slightly in 2019, but was still a smaller number and proportion of the population — a little more than 355,000 Utahns, or 11.1% of the population — than in 2017. It dropped again in 2020 to about 289,000 people — 9.2% of the population.
But statewide numbers started to increase in 2021, when nearly 317,000 people experienced food insecurity, according to data from Feeding America. That was a 9.7% increase from the first year of the pandemic.
The rate of food insecurity decreased in most counties despite the statewide jump.
But it increased in Beaver, Carbon and Daggett counties from 2020 to 2021. That’s likely because of changes in the local economy, such as the closing of a factory or coal mine or a different industry not yet starting to recover from the pandemic in those counties, said Utah Food Bank spokeswoman Heidi Cannella.
On a higher note, food insecurity among children is down across the board. The rate decreased 13.3% statewide between 2020 and 2021 and between 4.3% and 45.8% in individual counties.
Pandemic, inflation, decrease in SNAP benefits hit families hard
That doesn’t mean there aren’t families and children missing meals or eating something less nutritious or the kind of food they prefer.
And families who started using food bank services when their children didn’t have access to breakfast and lunch at school or parents lost their jobs also got hit hard by inflation, Bott said.
High costs for daycare, gas and housing and “crazy” prices for eggs and other household staples forced people to make tradeoffs, she said.
“Inflation beat them right back down to a point of challenge,” Bott said.
To continue this scenario of whack-a-mole, food stamp benefits decreased as gas and grocery prices started to come down, she added.
Some of Utah Food Bank’s partner pantries started seeing 50% and 60% increases in usage in April and May, Bott said. Numbers weren’t yet available for June, but she expected to see the trend of high usage continue.
Mobile pantry serves hundreds of families
The mobile food pantry in Taylorsville serves an average of 620 families, said “Grumpy” Tom Wilson, who sits at the end of the line before cars leave the lot and keeps count with a clicker.
During the peak of the pandemic, that number went up to about 850, Wilson said.
There were fewer cars at the start of the year, he said, but the number is climbing now.
Volunteers had served nearly 100 families in less than an hour on Monday, June 26.
They’re able to serve around 250 cars an hour, said Jake Buhler. He works in information technology for Utah Food Bank and manages the mobile pantry.
People are always kind and grateful, Buhler said. They sometimes show up as early as 9 a.m., hours before food distribution starts at 1:30 p.m., he said. Others may wait in line for hours once it’s moving.
It’s easy to see the need, he said. Cars fill and empty the parking lot three, four or five times when the pantry is at its busiest.
Wilson has volunteered for all but two weeks since the mobile food pantry started more than three years ago. It’s something he can do to help, he said, and he monitors the parking lot for the LDS stake presidency.
He’s also used the service.
Wilson would be OK without it but said a lot of families come through with tears in their eyes and say they’d starve otherwise.
Jose Magallanes also has volunteered since the mobile food pantry started, mostly because he had the time to do it and wanted to give back.
Like Wilson, Magallenes has used the services as a supplement.
It helps his four-person households save on grocery bills, he said, and they sometimes get food for their neighbors, as well.
Ruff and his family use the food from the mobile pantry to stretch their budget and afford groceries along with their other bills. He describes the pantry as a “godsend,” but isn’t among the families who would go without meals.
“I can’t say that we really went hungry before, but we were cutting things really short.”
Ruff and his wife tell everyone they can about the help available through the mobile food pantry. He thinks more people would seek help if they knew when and where to get it.
How to get or give help
Bott encouraged people who are struggling to afford groceries or who are missing meals to seek help. Not taking that difficult step of asking for help is the biggest mistake, she said.
Utah Food Bank employees understand people may be embarrassed or angry, and seek to make people feel welcome, Bott said. They also set up the brick-and-mortar pantries like a grocery store so people can choose what they want.
“There isn’t one of us who is immune to being put in a situation where we can be hungry,” she said. “It happens often. It happens quickly.”
The nonprofit focuses on just the food, Bott said.
Some partner pantries help people sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, she said. Other groups help with that and with housing, job training and otherwise getting people back on their feet.
Organizations are never going to end hunger, Bott said, but they can make things better and easier for people facing food insecurity.
Individuals can help by giving money, time or food.
Utah Food Bank has the ability to buy in bulk and leverage donations, and that enables the nonprofit to turn a dollar of donated money into $9 of goods and services, she said.
Volunteer hours and food donations also are important, Bott said.
People who donate food should look for a variety of products, she said, and look for items with low sodium and sugar or with protein. She suggested buying peanut butter and canned meat like tuna or chicken.
Finally, Bott encourages donors to scan their own pantries for favorite foods before donating items.
“If your family likes it, another family will too,” she said.