Families are camping out overnight before distribution days at the Utah Food Bank for fear the pantry will run out of food before they can get some.
Sometimes the stream of cars pours in for four or five hours. Most of the time, the line wraps around several city blocks. Often they serve 500 people in one day at one mobile pantry location.
Before the pandemic, Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the nonprofit, had never seen anything like that.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “... The pandemic just came over us like a wave. Overall, every single entity we give food to, the increased need has been tremendous. And we’re still not helping everyone who needs it.”
Schools have stepped up to distribute the bulk of the food during the crisis, including hosting mobile pantries from the food bank, opening their own pantries and preparing meals.
But donating peanut butter feeds a kid for a day. Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, hopes the pandemic — by seeming to have finally made hungry people visible — will lead Utah to consider comprehensive solutions at last. Schools and small nonprofits, she said, can’t be the only way the state tries to solve this.
Eliminating food insecurity has been the nonprofit’s mission since the 1970s, but getting policymakers to pay attention to the underlying issues of unaffordable housing, costly medical care and low wages that contribute to hunger has been difficult.
“Suddenly during the pandemic, it feels like it’s turned on a pin,” Cornia said, “and everybody wants to know why people are hungry.”
‘It isn’t enough’
Food insecurity has always been relatively high in Utah — roughly 11% of the population here, and 12% of all kids. And Bott believes it’s gotten even higher this year.
Studies from Feeding America, which researches hunger in America, project the same.
The group expects the percentage of Utahns needing food to jump above 15% because of the pandemic. That would mean more than 400,000 people here are regularly going without, with about one in seven children.
One of the biggest increases will occur in Salt Lake County, Feeding America estimates, where most of the population is centered. It’s anticipated to go from 10.9% to 13.9%. That tracks with growing unemployment rates.
The Utah Food Bank has tripled the amount of food it’s providing to the community, going from about 2 million pounds a month before the pandemic to 6 million now. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doubled what it contributed last year, delivering 4 million pounds of food to the Utah Food Bank, plus more to nonprofits, including refugee resettlement agencies and some school districts.
Its Bishops’ Storehouse in Salt Lake City stocks beans, turkey and beef, soup, cheese, milk, cereals, butter, ice cream, peanut butter and fresh and canned produce — 150 items in all, with the majority manufactured by the church.
The Utah-based faith also funds education foundations to help buy basic school supplies, bus passes, lice kits and backpacks filled with food for the weekends. “Our desire is to be part of a community effort to meet these critical needs,” said Rick Foster, welfare and self-reliance manager for Utah.
Other nonprofits are also helping feed children and their families: USANA Kids Eat, For the Kids, Catholic Community Services and more. Without all of the groups working together, Bott said, the need would be far worse.
For the Kids has helped feed students and their families from Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood since 2012 as a way to nourish them, but also to give them hope, said founder Minda Zoloth.
“We serve the 84116 ZIP code. All of their jobs were hit hardest and first [in the pandemic].” Zoloth said. “They were in restaurants, hospitality. It’s in industries [where many] are not coming back.”
The foundation distributes 350 bags of food each week, down from 600 during the spring shutdown. “If we stayed at 600, it wouldn’t be enough,” she said. “The need is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Everything everybody’s doing, it isn’t enough.”
USANA Kids Eat has been able to provide an additional 100 bags of groceries for families for the holiday season compared to 2019, for a total of 3,600. But that’s pushed it to the breaking point, said development manager Michelle Benedict.
Many of the corporate donors that used to provide money for the program have had to drop out because of the strain on businesses with the pandemic, she said. Families have stepped up in their place.
Still, as the program distributes to 30 schools, there are 13 more on its waiting list.
‘Change that needs to happen’
As part of a broader solution, Cornia wants to expand access to established food programs, such as food stamps (known as SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food to pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to age 5.
Those will help people, long term, to be able to buy groceries, instead of relying on pickups, she said.
Additionally, Cornia said, 85% of the families using food stamps have one working adult, which also points to the need to increase the minimum wage and pay workers more.
The response by food pantries, schools and other groups has been huge, she said, but “it doesn’t feel like it’s alleviating any of it. How do you sustain that kind of increase in demand without also looking at the structural change that needs to happen in wages and housing and things like that?”
The fact that so many children and families rely on schools to eat at nights and on weekends points to a broken system, Cornia added.
“My bigger concern is, should that be the role of schools? Should families have to depend on schools to provide food to them?” she asked. “What is the community doing to mitigate the need? What state policies are there to mitigate that?”
Chris Williams, spokesman for the Davis School District, raises similar concerns. “Schools have picked up the slack where there have been gaps in community food pantry assistance, particularly in the north part of Davis County,” he said, “but the need there is larger than the supply of food assistance.”
Crossroads Urban Center, which runs a downtown Salt Lake City emergency food pantry and one in Poplar Grove on the west side, is pushing to expand health services for homeless families and to require developers to replace affordable housing units lost to new development, as part of a longer-term fix.
United Way of Salt Lake, where 13,000 people received a referral for rent payment assistance and 6,400 for food this year, agrees the approach to ending hunger must be holistic, said Elizabeth Garbe, its senior director of government relations.
“There does need to be structural changes,” she said, “to ensure kids can go home and families can put food on their table and a roof over their children’s heads.”