Utah faces the hunger problem

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Food Pantry at Community Action Services in Provo.  (Hailey Stevens)
Food Pantry at Community Action Services in Provo. (Hailey Stevens)

One in six Utahns is at risk of missing a meal everyday, and one in five kids is unsure where the next meal is coming from, according to the Utah Food Bank.

The Utah Food Bank gathers food from sources such as food drives, commercial donations, government commodities and grocery stores and distributes it to partner agencies who serve clients. According to its website, only 7 percent of food items come from community food drives, which yield more than 3 million pounds of food annually.

“Holidays are our huge influx of food, which helps to stock shelves through the spring months,” said Heidi Cannella, communications specialist for the Utah Food Bank.

Community Action Services and Food Bank in Provo offers programs and solutions for the hunger problem, particularly for those struggling in Utah County. At 13 percent, Utah County has a slightly higher poverty rate than the rest of the state, according to Craig Severinsen communications director for Community Action Services.

“Our goal isn’t to just feed (clients) but to end poverty and to get them self-reliant,” Severinsen said.

Community Action Services focuses on the solutions to the hunger problem instead of simply feeding people. Clients in need of food meet with a case worker who evaluates their needs and helps them on the path of self-reliance.

“They meet somebody that they can have accountability with and can set goals,” Severinsen said.

Case management does more than just determine food needs. Clients can also receive bus tokens, gas money or motel vouchers.

“Think of poverty as a continuum instead of an event. It’s a crisis, and the first step to stabilize that crisis is to stop it,” Severinsen said.

One of its programs, a backpack program for kids, does not solve the problem but is much needed.

According to Severinsen, some Utah County children go home to empty cupboards. They get food from school breakfast and lunches, but often when asked by teachers on Monday when their last meal was, they answer lunch on Friday.

In an effort to help these children, Community Action Services sends bags of food that teachers put in the kids’ backpacks at the end of the week. The bags contain food that is easily prepared by elementary-age children.

“It doesn’t really solve the problem, but we’re talking about kids that can’t really help themselves,” Severinsen said.

Community Action Services and Food Bank also has a food pantry. A bank is where donated food is stored. A pantry is where people can come and receive the food. Community Action Services runs mostly on volunteer work with only a few employees. As a result, any money donated pays for things like gas in the trucks that transport food or electricity to keep the frozen goods cold, Severinsen said.

“A dollar can actually provide around three meals or seven pounds of food,” Severinsen said.

The food pantry section of Community Action Services is set up like a grocery store to encourage client choice. According to Severinsen, five years ago the standard food bank or pantry gave out pre-packed boxes so if a client came in they were handed a box. Three years ago, Community Action Services made the change so clients could choose their own food.

“Research shows it’s empowering, because they get to choose their own food, and so it promotes self-reliance,” Severinsen said. “It feels less like a handout and more like a hand up.”

He also said it reduced the amount of waste by 95 percent. If people did not like what was in the box they would just leave it in the parking lot.

Community Action Services and Food Bank has also implemented what it calls the Circle Initiative, where clients struggling with poverty are paired up with people in the middle or upper class. According to Karen McCandless, community strategies director, the Circle Initiative benefits the entire community.

“It gives participants the confidence and tools needed to set goals and move out of poverty,” McCandless said.

She further explained how the Circle experience teaches those in the middle and wealthy class what it is like to live in poverty.

“In order to eliminate poverty, all economic classes need to be at the table discussing solutions,” she said.

Many food banks in America are part of a national organization called Feeding America. According to Brittany Banks, manager of communication, Feeding America invests in in-depth research to uncover the root causes of food insecurity in order to better understand the issue and ultimately solve hunger.

Banks also said many universities are establishing food banks on campuses to support the growing trend of students who face hunger.

Another group tackling the hunger program is Utahns Against Hunger. According to the website, UAH works to create the political and public will to end hunger. It works to educate the public and collaborates with policymakers. UAH also ensures that programs are being implemented correctly.

According to Executive Director Gina Cornia, UAH is currently working to increase participation in the school breakfast program.

“(We are) working directly with school districts to determine what, if any, barriers exist to implement alternative breakfast models, like breakfast in the classroom,” Cornia said.

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