Salt Lake Tribune, April 21, 2008: Soaring cost of living spurs pantry, food-stamp demands

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By Julia Lyon
The Salt Lake Tribune

On a recent warm morning, Windell Johnson reached into his black suitcase, unfolded his coat and put it on. With a bad back and a patch over one eye, the 60-year-old needed to free up space to pack the kidney beans, eggs, yogurt, bacon and macaroni he had just picked up at a downtown Salt Lake City food pantry.

His refrigerator, like his wallet, needed help.

“It’s got food in it, but it ain’t got a lot,” he said before rolling his suitcase down the street.

The number of Utahns, like Johnson, looking for help at food pantries, has soared over the past few months as food prices spiked and personal bills rose. The state has seen a simultaneous jump in households relying on food stamps. High rents and few jobs are part of the financial web trapping many Utah families, those in need say.

The numbers weren’t at all surprising to people waiting in line at Hildegarde’s Pantry in

downtown Salt Lake City this week. Many were employed and had a place to live but were financially strained.

“America’s hurting,” Johnson said.

From January through March 2008, the community service help line 2-1-1 received 2,060 calls from Utahns needing food assistance, more than twice the number of calls in the same period the year before.

From March 2007 to March 2008, the number of Utah households on food stamps grew by about 4 percent after dropping nearly 8 percent the year before. The numbers are clear signs of the state’s growing financial woes, say those working with the low-income community.

“I think it’s sort of that first indication that the economy is softening,” said Gina Cornia, the executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. “Those families, those working poor families, start feeling the pinch and they turn to programs that they may not otherwise turn to in a better economy.”

Though the number of households receiving food stamps in Utah has been higher in the past, the amount of food people are buying with food stamps has hit a new high: $13 million in March. A Utah household on food stamps receives an average of about $225 per month. In Utah, 53 percent of food stamp beneficiaries are 17 or younger.

For some customers at Hildegarde’s Pantry at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake City this week, this would be the only food bank they had visited in months. For others it was far more frequent. At least one man said he regularly made the circuit of pantries around the area. Typically, pantries limit how often a family can receive food at each site.

Shazaaye Puebla and his wife, Cynthia, stood in line waiting for food to fill the shelves in their new apartment. They had been homeless for about a year and racked up about $20,000 in medical bills, they said. Coming to the pantry was “embarrassing,” Puebla said. He blamed the amount of corn grown to make ethanol for rising food prices.

“It’s very irresponsible,” he said. “Taking away food from the people for something that’s theoretical.”

Dave Carlson came to the pantry after his bills came in a little higher this month. As a carpenter with two children, he hadn’t gotten all the hours of work he needed. Dairy products, in particular, were hurting him.

“Milk costs more than gas does,” he said. “That’s crazy.”

The high need is not unique to Salt Lake City. At the six Salt Lake Community Action Program food pantries throughout the valley, demand was up a combined 23 percent this March versus the year before.

The increase was steeper downtown at places such as the Crossroads Urban Center food pantry where the number of households seeking help jumped by 44 percent this March compared with the March before.

“The No. 1 reason why people use our food pantry is because they just paid their rent,” said Glenn Bailey, executive director at Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City. “So I would say the tight housing market is probably the No. 1 contributor.”

Food pantries are already thinking ahead to the urgent need for more donations, particularly through the letter-carriers food drive in May.

“If that drive doesn’t go well, it’s going to be a serious problem this year,” Bailey said.

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