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Food Banks Struggle To Keep Up With Growing Demand

Photo of people standing near a school bus and a cart holding packaged food.
Jon Reed
Employees and volunteers at the Salt Lake School District have been working overtime to provide school meals and boxes of food to families in the area.

The coronavirus outbreak is still relatively under control in Utah compared to other states. As of Friday afternoon, 112 people in the state had tested positive for the disease but officials warn the worst is still ahead.

Many of the state’s public health measures designed to slow the spread of the virus are only in place — for now — through the end of March, but the ongoing threat of the virus could see restrictions extended indefinitely, and continue to erode an already shuddering U.S. economy.

Businesses have been forced to shut down around the country and unemployment claims are on the rise. In Utah, they jumped from 130 at the end of February to 1,314 by mid-March

Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank, said that’s led to an increase in the demand for food donations across the board — from seniors to families and people who are out of work. 

“We're in a situation that we've never ever been in before,” she said. “Not only the Utah Food Bank but all of us.”

Bott said the biggest challenge is getting supplies to those who need it. The food bank serves all 29 counties in Utah, acting essentially as a distribution center to more than 200 pantries across the state. 

But she said the growing need for food — on top of social distancing measures that restrict the number of volunteers they can hire — has made it increasingly difficult to help everyone in need. 

“When we send product to a location, it’s gone through a planning process with just an estimate of how many people will be attending,” Bott said. “The school districts, the food bank, none of us can control the fact that if more people show up than was planned for, you're going to run out.”

That’s been happening at the Salt Lake City School District, which on top of providing school meals to students out of class, announced last week it was partnering with the food bank to provide boxes of food and hygiene kits to families in the area. 

Angelica Ramos, a coordinator for one of three pick up locations in the district, said cars began lining up Friday morning at Rose Park Elementary School, more than an hour before the district was scheduled to start handing out the 250 boxes available. 

“We weren’t expecting that many people to come through,” she said. “Within half an hour, we were out.”

Ramos said because of such widespread need, the extra services are available to anyone who shows up, so long as there is something left to give. 

“They’re supposed to be for the Salt Lake School District or anybody from the community, but right now we’re just not even paying attention to that,” she said. “We’re just giving it out to anybody who comes.” 

Bott said the food bank’s current push has only been going on for the last week and a half. But with more uncertainty around the corner, it’s likely to be the new normal.

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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