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Demand for food assistance up 300% across Utah

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Austin Namba, left, and Tina Maxfield put food into a recipient’s car during a food bank distribution event in the parking lot of a Church of Jesus Christ meetinghouse in West Jordan on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The amount of food aid being distributed by the state’s largest nonprofit anti-hunger organization has tripled since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak has hit Americans hard, particularly those in lower income brackets. Combined with massive job layoffs and growing financial and employment instability, more people are turning to community providers to meet the demand for various social service needs, including food.

“It’s been an interesting ride in the last few months, and we started to see a change happen, of course, in the middle of March and it’s just kind of snowballed from there,” explained Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank. “On an average month here prior to the virus, we would distribute about 2 million pounds of food per month. Since April and every month since then, we’re distributing 6 million pounds of food per month.”

She added that March, April and into May were incredibly hectic because so many people who had never had to ask for support before found themselves being a first-time user of any kind of social services.

“The other side of that was because of the virus, so many of our brick-and-mortar pantries could not allow people to come inside to pick up and pick out your product,” she said. “We had to help them convert to a drive-thru process so that we could keep people in their car and social distance and keep everyone safe. So not only were we dealing with a new element of audience, we were also dealing with a whole new set of operational strategies.”

Bott said despite the dramatic increase in demand, the organization has been able to maintain its service level, and should be able to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

“We’re now going into the holidays, which is an interesting time without the virus because it’s a month that’s a bit of a challenge from a budget perspective for families, and food always seems to be at the bottom of the list when people are spending money during December,” she said. “We know that December is going to be a tough month, but then you go into January, we’re starting off a new year and some of these people still aren’t reemployed, or they’re not reemployed at the level that they were at — and now it’s a continuation of their dilemma. So it has to be a continuation of our services at the level that we can provide.”

The Utah Food Bank serves the entire Beehive State, supplying products to 203 pantries throughout the 29 counties. Fortunately, the organization has not had to cut any staff during the pandemic and it has adapted its distribution and collection strategies effectively thus far, she said.

“We were able to keep everyone on the payroll, we were able to continue to work to meet the demands that we had to have in place for food boxes and different types of products that we had to have ready to ship,” Bott said. “So, in a way it was a great way for me to be able to keep staff employed. And we had to really work some creative hours and some interesting logistics to be sure that we were able to meet the need.”

She said what keeps her “up at night” is the pressure to keep staff healthy and safe so they can continue to do the work necessary to provide the services Utah families need right now. Having the ability to set up drive-thru locations has been a major advantage as they work to serve people up and down the state, she said.

“We’re doing about 43 of these across the state every month at 43 different locations. Some are monthly, some are weekly depending on the need in the area,” Bott said. “But it does give us flexibility, that it allows us to serve those neighborhoods to the best of our ability and to meet the greatest of all their needs.”

She said the state has a strong supply chain for food with several large grocers that help the food bank maintain its product levels throughout the year.

“Some of our peers across the country have not been that fortunate, they’re not in a position geographically where they have that kind of help from a donor perspective. Utah’s culture is one of giving, one of compassion and one of looking out for one another,” Bott said. “When the need is there, people give (and) they help us the best they can. What we have seen through this scenario with a virus is that everyone’s preparing for their own family. So people haven’t been able to give maybe as much as they would have done normally, but people are still willing to give something and that is what’s important.”