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Food pantries face high demand and low inventory

Dec 01, 2023 01:07PM ● By Tom Haraldsen

The number of children living in poverty in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past year and a half, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It issued a release in September saying 12.4% of youth under 18 are living below the poverty line. That’s up from 5.2% in 2021 and totals over 9 million children.

Inflation overall, added to the expiration of the Child Tax Credit program that Congress instituted during the pandemic, has added to the economic challenges families are facing, including here along the Wasatch Front. It’s estimated that in Utah, one of every 11 residents will go to bed hungry tonight. So many are turning to local food pantries for help—and that’s a problem. Food pantries are seeing lower inventories and fewer donations. With the holidays approaching, pantry leaders are alarmed.

“Our needs are extreme,” said Rebekah Anderson, executive director of the Bountiful Community Food Pantry. “Every single day, we have at least one new family come in who we haven’t served before. Two weeks ago, we served over 100 families in one day—the most in a single day since I’ve been here.”

She said most of the pantry’s clients are not destitute—many come from families where both parents are employed or have second jobs. 

“Every day Davis County residents are finding their paychecks aren’t going as far as in the past,” she said. “They still need help to feed their families.”

At the Open Doors pantry in Layton, executive director Jason Wilde tells a similar story.

“For the first nine months of this year, we’ve seen a 40% increase in the numbers of families we’ve served,” he said. “At least half of those are families that have never come into the pantry before. At the same time, our donations have dropped by about 10%. So there’s a great inequity between needs and our ability to meet them.”

The Murray Children’s Pantry serves clients from throughout Salt Lake County. Jim Brass, president of the pantry board, says donations have dwindled throughout the summer, as they traditionally do, and he’s hopeful the upcoming holidays will put “people in a more giving mood.” As with Bountiful and Layton, clients have increased in numbers the past few months.

“We’re hearing the biggest challenge is rent—the costs of housing,” he said. “We’ve seen our client base grow by 30% to 40% some weeks. We have put together what we call family boxes—enough to feed a family of four for a week—and demand for those has steadily grown. There are new families coming in for the first time every week.”

Anderson said the Bountiful Pantry is blessed to have over 200 volunteers who help with food organization and distribution. She said one of those volunteers came back into work after being off for about a week and said “she couldn’t believe how empty our warehouse looked…in just a few days.” And she’s concerned that with November and December holidays just around the corner, when the demand usually doubles or triples, her inventory continues to drop.

In Bountiful, Anderson’s crew is being extra careful with distribution.

“We’re not rationing food, but we are taking steps to make sure we reduce waste,” she said. “We can extend the shelf life of canned vegetables, for example. The USDA provides a shelf life guide because many products are still good past their published expiration dates. That said, we still offer clients many healthy, fresh perishable food items as well. Our number one focus is always on our clients.”

So how can the public help out pantries? One way is through food drives at schools or through churches or community groups. The Farmington High National Honors Society is planning a food drive from Nov. 6-10 for the Bountiful Pantry. Anderson said she’ll provide either barrels or large wire containers to gather food. Bountiful also received a $5,000 donation from the Bridge Community Church in Centerville, which held a golf tournament as a fundraiser for the pantry.

“We’re so grateful to both Farmington High and the Bridge Community Church for doing these,” Anderson said. “It helps take stress off of the pantry.”

Bountiful Pantry’s annual Sub for Santa program—which can assign clients to be Santas for families in need of help—is taking registrations through Nov. 18. Low-income families are vetted, and last year more than 4,000 children received gifts.

Brass said the Murray pantry is working for the third year with the Frank Cordova Foundation to provide Thanksgiving dinners for families. The foundation provides turkeys, and the pantry provides the rest of the fixings.

Those wishing to make donations and help out should reach out to the pantries on their websites. Each director says the needs are continuing to grow every day. λ