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Thousands flock to grab-and-go food banks in the wake of layoffs, school closures

Verena Eyre, Maria Morales and Mariela Miranda distribute emergency food and hygiene kits outside of the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 20, 2020.
Verena Eyre, Maria Morales and Mariela Miranda distribute emergency food and hygiene kits outside of the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 20, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Frankie Runnells was already struggling with food security. For the past month the single mother has been living at a homeless shelter in Midvale with her six kids, five of whom rely on free lunch programs.

And with public schools across the state now temporarily closed, Runnells said she needs all the help she can get.

On Friday morning, she was one of hundreds of parents who stopped by the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City to pick up a free box of food and hygiene products. With two additional locations in Glendale and Rose Park, the Salt Lake School District and the Salt Lake Education Foundation launched the joint operation Monday to help families struggling with coronavirus-induced layoffs and school closures.

“It means a lot because I don’t have much and every little bit helps,” Runnells said, pausing to put down a heavy cardboard box full of pasta, canned food, soap, toothpaste and more.

By 10 a.m. Friday, the Liberty Community Learning Center served over 300 families, while both the Rose Park and Glendale locations ran out of food.

“This morning at Rose Park there was almost six blocks of cars back to back waiting for boxes of food,” said James Yapias, Salt Lake Education Foundation director, who said since Monday the Liberty Community Center has given food to over 2,000 families.

“This has been an eye-opener for us, but we have the resources available,” he said.

Yapias spoke shortly after a box truck pulled into the parking lot, with pallets of nonperishable food stacked to the ceiling. Salt Lake School District employees scrambled to unload box after box of pasta, peanut butter, canned fruit and more.

In the wake of the temporary school closures, Yapias said the Salt Lake Education Foundation employed roughly 200 after-school staff — who would otherwise be out of a job — to help distribute the food. The ‘grab-and-go’ food banks will be open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as long as public schools are closed.

“We actually started serving the community an hour ahead of schedule just because of the demand,” said Victoria Palaumi, Liberty Community Learning Center after-school coordinator. Palaumi was a busy woman Friday as she and roughly a dozen other employees tried to keep up with the near constant stream of cars filing into the parking lot.

“It has been nonstop and continuous, which says to me the need is astronomical,” she said.

The donations are a combined effort from the Utah Food Bank and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yapias said the Salt Lake Education Foundation has been stocking up on nonperishable food for years, but with the demand surging he urged Utahns to make a donation on the foundation’s website.

“As long as we keep getting the donations, we will continue to serve,” Palaumi said, although she expressed some concerns. “I hope that we can continue to sustain this pace, especially if we’re looking long term with students being at home and people not able to work.”

“We’re trying to stretch out our food as long as we can, to make sure that we make it through this,” said Rachel Calvin. “Not knowing how income is going to go ... it’s kind of scary.”

Calvin, who doesn’t own a car, walked almost two miles Friday morning with her five kids to pick up food and hygiene products. After being laid off indefinitely from her job at Vivint Smarthome Arena, Calvin said the food bank was nothing short of a blessing.

“It was nice not having to think about what I was going to make for (my kids),” Calvin said. “Especially with the loss of jobs and uncertainty with everything else.”