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‘It’s been a struggle’: As economic hardship persists in pandemic, thousands of Utahns wait in line for food

Ana Villalva, 6, thanks a Utah Food Bank employee as she and her cousin Christian George, 4, peak out the back of her mom’s vehicle during a drive-thru food distribution event at the Maverik Center on Friday, April 24, 2020. The event hosted by Utah Food Bank quickly went from four to six lanes of cars as more than 1,500 cars showed up with with families needing donations, according to a spokesperson.
Ana Villalva, 6, thanks a Utah Food Bank employee as she and her cousin Christian George, 4, peak out the back of her mom’s vehicle during a drive-thru food distribution event at the Maverik Center on Friday, April 24, 2020. The event hosted by Utah Food Bank quickly went from four to six lanes of cars as more than 1,500 cars showed up with with families needing donations, according to a spokesperson.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Steffanie Tomlin sat in the passenger seat of her grandmother’s car, holding her infant Bristol as volunteers with the Utah Food Bank loaded a box filled with cereal, milk and frozen meat into the trunk.

“The last month has been crazy,” she said. “This is our first time coming (to a food drive). I think a lot of people have never been in this situation before.”

On Friday morning 10 semitractor-trailers, each about 50 feet long and stocked with food, filed into the Maverik Center’s parking lot in West Valley City in one of the largest drives the Utah Food Bank has ever sponsored. Thousands of people, including Tomlin and her family, waited for hours in a line that wound through the Maverik Center’s sprawling parking lot, spilling out onto 3100 South for about one mile.

By 11:30 a.m., 1,500 cars had passed through the food drive. By 3 p.m., Ginette Bott, Utah Food Bank president and CEO, estimated more than 5,000 families had been served.

“I’ve been involved with the food bank since 1993, many things have occurred that I’ve been able to watch,” Bott said. “This is the most frightening, this is the most overwhelming and this is the most uncertain.”

The past month has been busy at the Utah Food Bank, and Bott said the demand is now nearly three times greater than it was before the pandemic.

“We also know a lot of people coming today are first-time recipients,” she said, pausing to adjust her mask. “This is new for them — it’s hard to come, it’s a little bit embarrassing sometimes. We try to make it easy and safe, and try to make them recognize that people in the community are here to help.”

This includes people like Tomlin, who said despite companies like Amazon and Kroger hiring, she hasn’t been able to find a new job since being laid off. The pandemic has compounded an already difficult situation for the mother of five who, on top of caring for her newborn, has to watch her kids all day while making sure her immunocompromised grandmother stays healthy.

“It’s extremely frustrating. They have cabin fever, I have cabin fever,” she said. “It feels like there’s no end in sight.”

Everyone is coping with the uncertainty, including Bott, who said in addition to the 26 food drives scheduled across the Beehive State in the coming month, the Utah Food Bank will probably have to sponsor another massive drive sometime in May. Although the demand seems daunting, Bott said the organization is ready to handle what could be the highest volume of recipients it has ever seen.

“We really are in a very good spot to sustain what the communities need in Utah,” she said “The food is there and right now we’re very comfortable with having to sustain this.”

As a member of Feeding America, a national nonprofit comprised of over 200 food banks, the Utah Food Bank is able to tap into a nationwide supply chain of donations. But Bott said her organization is always looking for three things — food, money and time. Anyone looking to donate or volunteer can easily do so on the Utah Food Bank’s website.

One of the companies that donates to the Utah Food Bank had a surplus of flowers. So, as recipients neared the end of the line on Friday, they were greeted by Elias Rengeria, who gleefully handed out the colorful bouquets. Even with the mask on, it wasn’t hard to see his smile.

Though Friday was a success, what worries Bott is the long term. While the current situation is sustainable through the summer and into the fall, if the economic hardship persists for another year, the demand could exceed what the Utah Food Bank can handle.

“I wish I could say I’m absolutely convinced that we can make it 12 to 18 months without issues, but I don’t think we can,” she said. “It’s something we really wish we had a crystal ball for.”

But in the meantime, the families that spoke with the Deseret News on Friday were overwhelmed with gratitude as they left the Maverik Center with a trunk full of food.

“It’s really helpful, with everything that’s going on,” said Virgie Montero, who had been sitting in her car with her family for nearly two hours by the time they reached the front of the line. “I really, really appreciate what everyone has done for the community. Without this, people struggle.”

In the line several spots behind Montero was Mitch Ring, a Salt Lake City man who took the TRAX to West Valley City on Friday, walking from the train station and through the parking lot with an armful of canvas bags.

“My nephew is a Marine, this is nothing compared to what they have to carry,” he said, laughing as he put the bags down to rest. “Whoever donated this food, whether it was a private or government organization, I’m thankful. We are thankful.”

Correction: An earlier version misspelled the name of the Maverik Center as the Maverick Center, and incorrectly referred to Mitch Ring’s nephew as his son.