Emergency food pantries in Utah are too small, have too few volunteers and are underutilized by those who need them most.

Those are among key findings of a first-ever assessment of how well the state's 64 pantries in the Utah Food Bank Services network are serving the state's chronically hungry.

The findings come as no surprise to food bank operators around the state, many of whom gathered Wednesday in Salt Lake City for a conference. Several agency managers said the data provide a much-needed baseline measurement of hunger, food insecurity and the service network's capacity to meet the need.

Noticeable gaps in that capacity are the continuing pockets of poverty and high unemployment, such as San Juan County — one of the country's poorest counties and drastically underserved areas. It has a poverty rate of 31.4 percent and one food pantry serving 130 households.

"Emergency food pantries are a critical part of the safety net that services low-income families," said Lorna Koci, director of client services for the Utah Food Bank network. "Comprehensive data on the need for emergency food and the state's current ability to meet emergency food needs had not been gathered until this study."

Clearly there are gaps, she said, noting that the study, conducted by the food service network and Utah State University, shows that the five counties with the highest percentage of poverty have only five pantries and serve a total of 1,029 households. Approximately 79,000 households in Utah are considered impoverished, according to federal standards. (The poverty level for a single family is an annual income of $10,210; for a family of four, $20,650.)

Food bank operators said the survey highlights a lack of understanding, particularly at the county level, of how widespread "food insecurity" is. Some county commissioners simply deny there is anyone in their county going hungry, they said.

Programs such as federal food stamps, free and reduced-priced school meals and services for young mothers and senior citizens, as well as the LDS Church's Bishop's Storehouse programs, help improve the overall picture, said Gina Cornia of Utahns Against Hunger.

"But many people refuse help because some are government programs or they don't want to be seen as needing or accepting a hand-out," she said.

But the fact is, and the survey reaffirms, Utah continues to have one of the highest rates of food insecurity and hunger in the country, Cornia said.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com