Taylorsville • JoAnn Hagen says that a few months ago, she never dreamed that she would be standing in line at a food pantry. Then the pandemic hit.
“I have a day care, and the kids stopped coming for a while. They stayed home with their parents,” she said, visiting the Taylorsville Food Pantry for the first time on Saturday. “Money has been tight,” even after a few children returned — and so has food.
She is among about a third of all Utah households, 32% to be exact, that report they now sometimes or often do not have enough to eat, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted May 14-19 with 3,529 Utahns responding.
One of every eight — 13% — reported they had received free food or a free meal in the last seven days to make ends meet.
Many Utah families are new to such challenges. One of every 11 Utah households that reported they had plenty to eat before the pandemic now say they do not.
The survey listed many reasons why households say they are struggling with food.
About half of Utah households, 51%, said they couldn’t afford to buy more food.
Most households said they could not get out to obtain food or find what they wanted. That includes 55% who said they couldn’t find the food they like, and 79% who said they were afraid or did not want to venture out to get food.
As Hager said, “When I go to the store, sometimes I can’t even find hamburger. The price of meat has gone up, and so have other prices” — making it harder to stretch her decreased income.
Many Utahns report that they don’t expect the situation to improve much soon. About 45% said they are “not at all” or only somewhat confident that they will be able to afford to buy food in the next four weeks.
“Yes, we’ve seen an increase in need,” said Ginette Bott, president and CEO of Utah Food Bank, which distributes food to pantries around the state. “In some places, it’s up two-and-a-half times higher. In some, it’s up hardly at all.”
She says rural areas — where few COVID-19 cases have been seen — had less need, while it boomed in urban areas.
She sees two main reasons for increased demand: more people were put out of work when businesses shut down during COVID-19 restrictions, and school closures increased household grocery needs because children were often were away from school lunches.
“Some folks had never done this before, they didn’t know how to go about the process or get help,” Bott adds, saying that made it more difficult on many.
Tiffany Diaz, database manager for the Taylorsville Food Pantry, said, “We’re seeing six to eight new families come in every week.” She said the pantry saw a lot of new faces as the pandemic hit — and many previous regulars actually stayed away for a while “because I think they were worried about if we were going to be open.”
Bott said the Utah Food Bank has been able to keep up with the extra demand.
“We have been so fortunate because we have a very solid supply chain,” Bott said. She adds that it sent out extra supplies to pantries around the state as the pandemic hit because it was unsure if it would be able to keep shipments going — and because it expected the extra need.
She said the only problem was a two- or three-week period when things like toilet paper disappeared in stores, and also disappeared from its supply chain.
Bott explains that many of its donations come from its “grocery rescue” program, where stores donate products off their shelves — and they can’t donate items that have disappeared. “The stores are all back online. Everybody is doing at least what they were, if not more. So that problem was very short term for us.”
Bott adds that her food bank and the pantries it serves lost most of their volunteers when restrictions banned gatherings of more than 10 people — so church youth groups, among others, were forced to cancel their help.
“That very first day we lost 200 volunteers, which was huge to us,” Bott said. “We have been so blessed to utilize volunteers to come to our facilities to help us prepare boxes of food or to hand out food or to work in the pantry to work with the recipients. That all stopped.”
She said pantries have had to adapt, usually by relying on their staffs to work longer and harder. “The folks that continue to work longer hours to make the process work deserve a huge ‘thank you.’”
Many in line at the Taylorsville Food Pantry on Saturday said it has been a lifesaver — before and especially after COVID-19 hit.
“I live on Social Security, and it doesn’t pay much. It covers a few bills. But I come here, or I don’t eat,” said Lily Aguilar.
Craig and Lynette Bushman both work, but they and their six children were evicted when they had trouble meeting bills after medical costs when Craig was injured last year. They were homeless, but now live in a pop-up camper behind a friend’s home to save for a deposit for permanent housing.
“Even though we both work, with six kids it’s tough to afford enough to eat — especially now that they are home all day because school has been out,” Craig Bushman said.
The Taylorsville Food Pantry allows patrons four visits a month, which the Bushmans had already used. But on Saturdays, the pantry offers extra produce that doesn’t count as one of the four visits — and the Bushmans were taking advantage of that. “It really helps,” Lynette Bushman said, who adds she works two jobs herself.
“I came here before coronavirus, but lately I’ve been coming more often,” said Priscilla Segura. “There’s no work for my kids’ father” because of pandemic cutbacks. “It’s a struggle to make ends meet. But this helps out a lot.”