The holidays are over, and no one needs to tell that to the Utah Food Bank.

“We run with our hair on fire during November and December,” says Heidi Cannella, the Utah Food Bank’s communications director who is showing Deseret News photographer Scott Winterton and me around the organization’s 88,000-square-foot warehouse on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley.

The shelves and walk-in freezers we’re walking past are equipped to hold some 2 million pounds of food when full. But some of them aren’t quite full at the moment. Like the rest of us, the food bank is experiencing an after-holidays lull. The energy has been turned down a notch. Except for the occasional sound of a forklift backing up, there’s silence in the aisles.

During the holidays, “People have holly in their hearts,” says Heidi, continuing her thought, “and then they kinda forget about it.”

Case in point: Volunteer shifts — where companies and church classes and other service-minded groups come to the food bank to box and sort food and perform other tasks — are so in demand during Christmastime that many are reserved as much as a year in advance. The slots in mid-to-late December are coveted like tee times at Pebble Beach.

But in January, “Oh man, it’s quiet here,” says Heidi.

And while it would be disingenuous to suggest there’s anything approaching a food crisis, now or ever, at the Utah Food Bank — the organization is recognized as one of the best-managed, most efficient feeding-the-hungry charities in the country — it’s a fact that the problem of food insecurity is a constant that never goes away. Highlighting the year-round need to help never goes out of style.

Especially now. Because for the past four years, according to Ginette Bott, Utah Food Bank’s president and CEO, the need keeps rising.

Heidi Cannella, communications director for the Utah Food Bank, talks about the product they have and the items they have for those that need it, at their South Salt Lake City warehouses on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It started when the pandemic hit in early 2020.

“COVID was like nothing I’ve seen in my 30 years affiliating with the food bank,” says Ginnette, “the demand had never been so high.”

Since then, it’s gotten higher.

“When the (pandemic’s) emergency phase was over, inflation started impacting and people who got behind just haven’t had a chance to catch back up,” says Bott. “Our numbers now are higher than they were doing COVID.”

Of the 263 pantries the food bank services in all corners of the state, the majority are reporting increases in customers. The most dramatic increases are being reported at the larger pantries serving urban populations.

The Springville pantry, Bott points out as an example, has seen a 60% increase from last year. Pantries in Bountiful and St. George, among others, have also seen large surges.

“The majority of the families we’re serving, they’re working two and a three jobs, trying to make it,” says Bott.

Also surging are food requests from schools.

“Teachers are our best gauge; they know when a kid is struggling,” says Bott. “We’re seeing almost all of the schools asking for help.”

The bottom line as 2023 gives way to 2024: A food bank that on average disperses just north of 60 million pounds of food each year, feeding some 320,000 people — amounting to one of every 10 Utahns — is going to need more food than ever this year.

The warehouse shelves Heidi, Scott and I are walking past are routinely completely cycled through every three weeks. For supply to keep up with demand, the pace will have to be even faster.

It’s a sobering, but real, commentary.

The food bank solicits help from the public in three ways: time, food and money (details are at utahfoodbank.org). The need is year-round. Hunger knows no season. 

Says Bott, “As we come to the days that are post holiday and after we’ve had incredible opportunities to be with friends and family, it doesn’t mean we can stop thinking about others and to be cognizant that the best way for us to help in the new year is to make sure no one goes without food.”