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Sequestration Hits Hungry, Low Income Utahns

Andrea Smardon

A food pantry in Murray has closed its doors because of federal sequestration budget cuts.  Nonprofit organizations in Utah are trying to figure out how to continue serving hungry, elderly, and low-income people as their budgets are reduced.  KUER looks at how sequestration will affect some of the most vulnerable parts of the state's population.

It's a busy morning at Redwood Center food pantry in West Valley City. Volunteers are stocking the shelves with canned corn, cereal, and peanut butter delivered that morning from the Utah Food Bank.   Dozens of people are waiting in a line that snakes down the hallway, many of them parents with children. Pantry manager Lisa Hernandez says they'll be happy when they see what’s on the shelves.

"Today will be their lucky day because we got diapers, Hernandez says. “A lot of people are in need of diapers.”

Hernandez says they serve about 100 people a day, and that number is going up now that a pantry closed down in Murray. The West Valley Pantry is now open on Saturdays to pick up the slack. The pantry in Murray was one of six run by the Salt Lake Community Action Project. Executive Director Cathy Caputo Hoskins says sequestration has hit them hard.

"The cuts to our core funding have been pretty devastating to our agency,” says Caputo. “They equal about 50,000 dollars worth of cuts, and for a nonprofit that operates pretty close to the bone, that's a pretty serious cut."

Hoskins says they're trying not to cut staff or reduce services to the people that they serve. Most of their pantries operate in donated space, but they had to pay rent in Murray.

"It was only logical - instead of laying off people - that we were able to close the facility and hopefully be able to service them in some of our other locations," says Hoskins, but she says it's a difficult time to make cuts, as the needs of hungry people are growing.  Food pantry use in the county has increased 260 percent since 2005.

"There is a very popular misconception going about that the recession is over.  We don't see that.  We think that the recession is alive and not so well here in our town because of the number of people that we're serving,” says Hoskins. “People are hurting right now, and the dollars are being cut at the wrong time."

While the County’s food pantries are already feeling the effects of sequestration, other services are waiting for the cuts to hit.  The agency that runs Meals on Wheels  - which delivers food to seniors in their homes – will be cut when their new budget cycle starts in July.

On a recent morning, driver Bill Nolan is on his rounds delivering meals in Salt Lake City. Marisa Ray King is sitting in the kitchen of her apartment in her pajamas, her arm in a sling. King has a number of chronic health problems - multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, and diabetes. In spite of her problems, King's face lights up when Nolan comes in.

“He's always got a smile that lifts my spirits,” says King. “I know that no matter what happens somebody during the week is going to be checking on me. That means a lot."

The last time King tried to leave her house, she fell and injured herself. She says she's only been able to go grocery shopping three times in the last five years.

"In the past five years, there's been times if they hadn't come, I wouldn't have had any food,” says King. What I do is I divide the meal they give me in half so I can eat all day, and it works really well.  I'm sorry, I don't mean to whine, it's just the facts of life, you know."

The state’s various Aging Services agencies are expected to lose more than 600,000 dollars of federal funds. Scott McBeth is Director of the Mountainland Agency on Aging and Family Services.  He says he's been squirreling away grants and private donations to be ready for this day, so that he won't have to cut someone like Mrs. King from the Meals on Wheels program. McBeth says he’ll probably be able to balance the budget this year, but he says the full impact of sequestration will be felt further down the line.

"The direction things are going, if I'm not able to obtain more grants and private donations and other things, then a year from now, two years from now, we'll be making drastic cuts," says McBeth. He says he recognizes that the federal budget should be cut, but he hopes that the needs of the most vulnerable will be considered in that process.

As for Cathy Hoskins at Salt Lake Community Action Project, she will continue to look for alternative funding sources, but she is not optimistic about the future. 

“It’s the federal issue that’s causing so much devastation to low income people,” says Hoskins, “I don’t see why our leaders in Washington can’t see that these cuts are going to be hurting the very people who need help the most.”

Hoskins says she will keep looking for ways to save money without cutting services, but she says you can only stretch a dollar so far.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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