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Vehicles snake around the parking lot of a chapel belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pick up food from the Utah Food Bank in Taylorsville in 2020.

Vehicles snake around the parking lot of a chapel belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pick up food from the Utah Food Bank in Taylorsville on April 13, 2020. The line continues on the street. The Utah Food Bank estimates it provided food to around 400 families at this location.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As the world shut down, the church’s relief efforts ramped up

A deeper look inside the story of the church’s effort to help people around the world survive the pandemic

SHARE As the world shut down, the church’s relief efforts ramped up
SHARE As the world shut down, the church’s relief efforts ramped up

That stench. Phillip Moatlhodi recognized the revolting smell of Jabula soup as he approached the poor, elderly woman sitting on a sandstone stoop and cooking outside her South African home.

The odor brings back a flood of memories of his childhood, when he despised the soup and refused to eat it. Now a 50-year-old man, he wonders at how even now his stomach churns violently as his nose fills with the stink.

Moatlhodi wasn’t supposed to meet this woman or smell her meager soup. Yes, he is standing in the dirt on this sunny day because he is helping to distribute food as the welfare specialist for the Africa South Area of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he had never heard of this woman, Mrs. Mofokeng, who is a stroke victim, and she is not on the list of recipients.

“There’s an elderly lady who stays by herself, and she really needs help,” another woman said to Moatlhodi.

He asks to see her, and Mrs. Mofokeng looks up into the sun at Moatlhodi as her soup simmers. And reeks.

“This is all I have,” she tells Moatlhodi. “I will eat this and then go to bed.”

Moatlhodi always brings an extra packet of food along when he joins a humanitarian food delivery.

“We were able to give her this, and it really humbled me,” he told the Deseret News this week.


Phillip Moatlhodi, left, the Africa South Area welfare specialist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looks on as an aid worker talks with Mrs. Mofokeng, an elderly stroke victim who received food from the church in South Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Phillip Moatlhodi

That example and others gathered from multiple interviews add new depth to the broad annual report issued last week by Latter-day Saint Charities and illustrate the even larger aid footprint provided by the church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Services. As the church prepares for its annual general conference this weekend, the Welfare and Self-Reliance Services managing director said the department’s innovations and learning over the past 12 months increased its future capacity.

“Every one of (our) services faced significant increase in demand during this year of pandemic,” Blaine Maxfield said, adding that “output was significantly enhanced through additional shifts, volunteerism, some contract hires, as well as drawing upon reserves to allow us to respond to the basic needs of millions of God’s children around the world.”

When everything else began to lock down and shut down a year ago, the polar opposite began to happen inside the offices of Welfare and Self-Reliance Services in Salt Lake City, Utah, and its warehouses across the world.

It was time to ramp up.

That generated a monumental task for Megan Burt, the manager of the church’s 110 bishops’ storehouses and home storage centers in the United States and Canada. The coronavirus pandemic triggered major new pressure on the storehouses to distribute more food and other supplies. Orders to help the newly needy submitted by bishops increased about 500%. But at the same time, COVID-19 precautions sidelined scores of vulnerable senior missionary volunteers who staffed hundreds of distribution centers around the country.


Elder Tyson Jacob Weatherhead, of San Antonio, Texas, describes the size of the Bishops’ Central Storehouse to Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as workers load trucks with food at the facility in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. The food was delivered to nine pantries across the country as part of a new partnership between the University of Wyoming’s noted Black 14 and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“In the space of about three weeks we had to turn over roughly 1,800 individuals to get those senior missionaries home and safe and protected and bring in ward and stake volunteers, young church service missionaries, department employees and even full-time missionaries” sent home at the start of the pandemic, Burt said.

Bumper crops support increased aid

Latter-day Saint Charities is one component of a larger swath of welfare programs operated by the Church of Jesus Christ. It is the humanitarian arm of the church, and last week reported that during 2020 it engaged in 1,031 coronavirus relief projects in 151 countries.

Welfare and Self-Reliance Services did even more, expanding its numerous programs, some in support of those projects, others beyond their scope. As previously reported, it significantly increased food production — from dairy farms to pasta manufacturing plants — and other supplies like mattresses.

In fact, the church’s storehouses distributed 96.4 million pounds of food in 2020, up 10% from the year before. That increase of 9 million pounds was three times larger than the increase produced the year before.


Some of that increase was serendipitous.

Bumper crops of beans and corn — one church staffer called them miracle crops — stunned farm managers, especially coming in during drought conditions, Maxfield said. A manager at the church’s canning facility in Harrisville, Utah, had to scramble to add shifts to be able to can nearly twice the normal amount of beans. He said there was no explanation for it.

Burt said the storehouses were well-prepared to weather most demands, like the familiar one for toilet paper. The pandemic also created some opportunities. Some dairies had huge excesses of milk as demand fell at closed restaurants. The church bought milk and partnered with Gossner Foods in Logan to turn some into cheese it could distribute to food pantries.


Workers oversee cheese production at Welfare Square in 2020 for distribution through the bishops’ storehouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“When we’re doing our part, the Lord makes up the balance,” added Craig Lacey, a long-haul trucker for Deseret Transportation.

Lacey crisscrossed the United States in 2020 to transport raw materials like grain and raw milk to food processing plants. He also delivered tons of food products, like those canned beans, to food banks and food pantries with empty shelves.

That made Lacey part of a huge increase in the number of truckloads of food sent out of the church’s storehouses. The church delivered 800 truckloads of food in 2020, up from 412.5 truckloads in 2019 and 315 the year before. Each truckload feeds 1,400 people for a week.

“The generosity and spirit of giving from our friends with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is just astounding,” Jennifer Landers, executive director of the Community Assistance Center in Conroe, Texas, told WoodlandsOnline after a delivery earlier this month. “Our food pantry shelves, particularly soups, canned vegetables and fruits, and pastas, have been slim to bare, so this wonderful donation will go a long way to restocking our shelves and filling the pantries of our neighbors.”


Craig Lacey, a long-haul truck driver for Deseret Transportation, crisscrossed the country over the past year to deliver raw materials like grain and raw milk to food processing plants and to take finished products to food banks receiving donations from Latter-day Saint Charities.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Landers said her center has had a long, strong relationship with local church stakes — it will recognize the Latter-day Saints as its faith partner of the year at an upcoming luncheon — but the recent truckload of food from Salt Lake City was new.

“That’s the first time we received an 18-wheeler full of groceries, so it was amazing,” said Landers, who has used the food to support its program delivering groceries to senior citizens and to help 300 families. “It was a huge blessing that we received that food and we have definitely put it to good use.”

The same thing was true in Africa, said Moatlhodi, who was one of the first in South Africa to get sick with COVID-19.

He recovered and was on the ground for a number of the COVID-19 relief projects Latter-day Saint Charities conducted in southern Africa. Several involved masks and other personal protective equipment. One cost more than $1 million.

“Food became the biggest challenge,” Moatlhodi told the Deseret News. “I worried that more people would die from hunger and starvation than from COVID itself.”

The church provided $1.4 million of assistance when it partnered with South Africa’s Department of Social Development to help 29,750 households with food supplies to last five to six weeks. In Zimbabwe, which was in the midst of a three-year drought, the church donated 4,400 tons of grain.

Of course, the moment Moatlhodi will never forgot came during a separate food project when he smelled Mrs. Mofokeng’s soup and was able to give her something more.

‘Manna from God’

Hours after releasing the Latter-day Saint Charities’ annual report last week, the church sent a thank-you note by email to people who donated and volunteered to support COVID-19-relief efforts last year, including those who filled in for the senior missionaries at bishops’ storehouses and distribution locations.

Volunteers made key contributions all over the world. More than 57,000 volunteers sewed 6 million masks in six weeks in Utah as part of Project Protect, a joint effort organized by University of Utah Health, Intermountain Healthcare and Latter-day Saint Charities.


Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, hands a face mask kit to Alicia Rawlins at the Deseret Industries Thrift Store in American Fork on April 21, 2020. Some 10,000 volunteers will use the kits to make 1 million clinical masks to protect health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Another example, one that doesn’t show up in the annual report, happened at the Chicago Illinois Bishops’ Storehouse, which makes deliveries throughout Chicago and northwest Indiana on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, the storehouse’s system showed orders for food aid had doubled, said Christopher Guymon, president of the Joliet Illinois Stake and agent stake president for the storehouse.

The storehouse didn’t have enough bread to fill the orders that needed to be shipped two days later.

“We had a sudden spike in need because of people being laid off with the government closing down all the restaurants in the state,” said Elder David K. Scott, an Area Seventy in the church’s North American Central Area. “We had an enormous surge that left us suddenly without bread,” he added.

The two leaders turned to local church members for help.

Abby Omerza was out for a run at 9 o’clock the next morning when she got a phone call that the storehouse needed 200 loaves of bread by noon. As the Naperville Illinois Stake Relief Society president, she mobilized her organization’s leaders in four local congregations. In minutes, women were scouring area stores for bread or making their own.

For about two hours I just had a stream of people driving up and dropping off bread,” Omerza said. “Some people brought 10 or 15 loaves, some people brought two.” She said her car was filled up by 11:40 a.m.

By 1 p.m., the storehouse had 250 loaves of bread.

“When I walked in Wednesday afternoon and saw all that bread sitting there it was like manna from God,” President Guymon said. “It was just amazing.”

Maxfield said Welfare and Self-Reliance Services learned lessons as it innovated to provide teletherapy sessions with Family Services counselors, more online job search options and more virtual training opportunities with its maternal and newborn care specialists.

“We did those out of necessity, but it’s allowed us to recognize that we could do so much more virtually than we had otherwise thought,” he said.

Burt, who managed the storehouses’ increased output at the same time its volunteer staff turned over, and Lacey, the long-haul truck driver, both used the word miracle in describing their experiences helping others in 2020.

Maxfield also referred to divine intervention.

“It’s just been a privilege,” he said, “to participate in the work and to truly watch the hand of the Lord as we’ve ventured to rise to the various challenges that have existed and continue to exist.”