TAYLORSVILLE — When T. Wilson looks at the hundreds of cars lined up waiting to pick up food for the week from one of the Utah Food Bank’s mobile distribution sites, he doesn’t feel sad or overwhelmed.
He feels grateful.
“I’ve been so touched and so moved by all the volunteers who’ve shown up to help,” said Wilson, a 68-year-old West Jordan man who volunteers to help distribute food in the parking lot of a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taylorsville. “A number of people have come through in tears. You can tell they didn’t know where they were going to get food for tomorrow, and they’re just so relieved and grateful.”
Wilson was one of dozens of volunteers organizing and loading food into the waiting cars of about 500 families Monday afternoon. When he started volunteering at the site in January, they served about 60 families with eight to 10 volunteers. On the same day in Orem, about 50 volunteers served 800 families.
Individuals and families used to walk through tables of food organized in bags or boxes, but that changed mid-March when state and local health department regulations meant to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 changed the way they disseminate food.
Utah Food Bank employees and volunteers have had to adjust the way they help people at the same time the need for assistance is exploding. In Utah, the number of those in need has essentially doubled in one month.
“I think I can honestly say that food banks across the country have never been as busy as they are right now,” said Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank. “We are seeing so many people who’ve never asked for help before. They don’t even know where to go because they’ve always been very self-sufficient. ... The ripple effect is really starting.”
That ripple started when local and state governments began closing businesses completely or partially in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. As businesses closed or reduced hours, companies laid off employees.
The numbers of those seeking help from the Utah Food Bank frame the problem in a stark reality. In February, the food bank’s programs served 35,932 people. In March, they served 68,058 people. Bott acknowledges that knowing where to get help is only part of the problem.
“There has to be an element of pride, dignity or fear,” Bott said of those seeking help for the first time. “So many things that a family has never had to go through, but is now becoming more common as people lose their jobs.”
In the past there have been three ways to help the Utah Food Bank assist those families dealing with tough times. Now, people can donate food and they can volunteer, but officials had to stop having volunteers help in the warehouse because of COVID-19 restrictions, Bott said.
“The one thing we’re focusing on is cash donations,” Bott said. “It’s the easiest, safest way to help us meet the need. They can donate online, and we use their money and our buying power to turn $1 into $7 of buying power.”
Bott said watching the Utah Food Bank staff “rally” to meet an explosion of need, while at the same time dealing with fears about the spread of the virus, has been inspiring. And just as moving has been the fact that they’ve had an increase in volunteers right along with the increase in demand.
“It’s been incredible watching this group of employees really rally,” she said. “The thing that’s been so incredible is just the support we’ve received from businesses, foundations, individuals and religious groups. The list just goes on and on. People recognize that the Utah Food Bank is helping to care for the entire state, and their money comes right back into helping people in their neighborhoods.”
While some states have had to enlist the help of their National Guard units to help distribute food to those in need, Utah has been able to completely meet that need with staff and volunteers.
“We feel so blessed to live in such a giving culture,” Bott said.
Wilson volunteers because he has a connection to the church building where the food is distributed, and because the food bank allows him to take enough food to help some of his neighbors who are homebound.
“I have some families that I minister to who are homebound,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be able to help them without the support of the food bank’s program. “No, I wouldn’t. I would try, but I would not be able to do the same thing.”
The growing need is sobering. But Wilson said the way Utahns have rallied to meet those needs has been heartening.
“I just feel excited that we’re able to help,” he said. “I’ve been on both sides of that fence. I’ve needed help. And I’ve been able to help those who need it.”
He said the most important thing is that people who are struggling understand that there is help available.
“More and more people need help, and we just need to get the word out that it’s available for them,” Wilson said.
Volunteering reminds him that whatever difficulty Utahns face, they will overcome it together.
“It’s made me confident in humanity,” Wilson said. “I’m confident that people are willing to help each other if we stick together in times of need.”
Bott said she and her staff have “learned some valuable insights” addressing such a rapidly growing need with massive logistical changes, a public health scare and an earthquake.
“We have incredible support and trust of the people around us in our communities,” Bott said. “We’ve learned that any single one of us, in the space of just hours, can see a life-changing event occur, something we didn’t see coming.”