The Struggle for Food Security in Utah
▲ Jackie Sanchez, a volunteer at Crossroads Urban Center, packs a food box for a hungry family in the center's food pantry. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
By Glenn Bailey*
Salt Lake City, Utah
The other morning I came to work early and heard someone at the back door. It was a young woman, Charlotte, who was busy unloading cases of chili to donate to our Food Pantry. I thanked her and she told me she had stopped on her way to work. Then she said, "You know, I've been here before. I've had to come here for food to feed my kids quite a few times." She had recently gotten a good job. Now she wanted to give back.
Charlotte never gave up. Despite being one of the 5.1% of Utahns who suffer from “very low food security” (hunger) the 4th worst rate in the country. Despite living in a state where workers earn only 80% of the U.S. average wage, where one in ten residents fall below the federal poverty line, and where over 300,000 people have no health insurance.
Crossroads Urban Center operates the busiest emergency food pantry in the State of Utah. Established in 1966 in a building that has
Crossroads Urban Center (above) is a United Methodist Women-funded National Mission Institution in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
been owned by Women’s Division since 1905, Crossroads is feeding more people than ever before. The food pantry at Crossroads served 24% more people in 2008 compared with year before. Food pantries nationwide are experiencing the same situation as the economy deteriorates and more jobs disappear.
When considering the issue of food insecurity, it is important to remember that it isn’t just about food. The number one reason people use the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center is that they’ve just paid the rent. People tend to pay the bills before they think about the food budget. For many Utahns, food security is a luxury.
Crossroads Urban Center has a variety of services for people in need, much like the thousands of nonprofits nationwide supported by United Methodists in local churches. In addition to the food pantry, there is a thrift store, an emergency fund, baby food and formula, and special holiday food distribution.
But the idea of food security requires that we stretch further that the occasional bag of food or bundle of used clothing. Although the majority of the people served by the Food Pantry come only once or twice for food, Crossroads personnel observed many families needing to use the Food Pantry several times each year. Government assistance is meager, and Utahns make only about 80% of the U.S. average wage. A place where people could work together to lower food costs and stretch their incomes was needed.
In 2006 Crossroads established the Community Food Co-op of Utah, which has gone from sales of 430 food packages per month to over 3,500. The Food Co-op has several thousand members and is continuing to grow with 60 volunteer-run distribution sites scattered across a wide area of north central Utah. Anyone can join the Food Co-op and purchase a basic food package each month. Food is purchased in bulk and distributed by volunteer teams at churches, community centers, housing projects, and other sites. Participants save 30% to 50% off grocery store prices and “food stamps” are accepted. Co-op members pledge to volunteer at least two hours of volunteer time in the community each month. The Food Co-op sells food that is primarily produced locally, including an organic food package grown by local farmers.
At Crossroads Urban Center, there are also several efforts geared toward community organizing and advocacy on food security issues. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” We can’t help people in emergencies or join our neighbors to participate in more sustainable food systems without calling for greater social change. Too many people are food insecure.
One of the advocacy projects sponsored by Crossroads, the Anti-Hunger Action Committee (AHAC), is made up of people who’ve received food from the Food Pantry and are advocating for themselves on issues ranging from health care to public transportation. Crossroads projects, such as the Coalition of Religious Communities (CORC), have pushed for an end to the food tax in Utah, greater participation in the federal Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), and better regulation of the payday loan industry. Please see Linda Hilton’s companion article for more information on CORC’s work in Utah.
Food security is about both charity and justice – meeting immediate needs while working persistently to change the systems that allow such need to exist. If, as people of faith, we focus diligently on both of these vital missions, we will be helping to build a community in which food is shared abundantly and no one is turned away from the table.
*Glenn Bailey is the executive director of the Crossroads Urban Center.