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UTAH'S FOOD AGENCIES FEAR GROWING DEMANDS

Utah's emergency food providers fear proposed block grants and funding cuts for federal nutrition programs will result in a greater demand for emergency services - a demand they cannot meet.

"Our message today is, these local agencies can't do much more than they do now," said Steve Johnson, director of Utahns Against Hunger, at a press conference Friday.Despite the upturn in the state's economy, emergency food agencies experienced a 19 percent increase in three-day food orders in the first quarter of this year compared to 1994.

Virginia Walton of the Salt Lake Community Action Program said many Utahns who seek emergency food assistance are working poor. Although food orders have not increased per se, the number of people per household has steadily climbed.

High rents have forced two and three families to share a single dwelling, she explained. "When they get through paying for housing, they can't afford to eat," Walton said.

Walton said Congress has examined federal nutritional programs strictly by the numbers. "These are people. They are people with children and real problems," Walton said.

Representatives of Utah's emergency food pantries also signed a letter to Gov. Mike Leavitt Friday asking him to oppose child nutrition block grants and proposed cuts in the federal Food Stamp program. Leavitt does not necessarily oppose block grants, arguing the states could do a better job providing services than the federal government.

Johnson said he believes the Legislature will not cover what in the past has been a federal responsibility. For instance, the Utah Legislature in its 1995 session shot down the expansion of the school breakfast program, which is federally funded.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates under the two block grant programs, Utah will lose $80 million over the next five years, compared to what the state would receive under existing law. USDA estimates that the proposed Food Stamp program will cost Utah $95 million over the next five years, for a total of $175 million.

"The sad thing is that federal food programs have worked. Thirty years ago, our nation was shocked by reports of gross malnutrition among our people. The result was a bipartisan effort in Congress and with different administrations to develop a response to domestic hunger. And over the past 20 years, there has been documented progress in the nutritional well-being of Americans in poverty, Johnson said.

"It appears that members of Congress and sadly, individuals in our own state government, are willing to sacrifice this progress to advance a political agenda on the backs of our most vulnerable people."