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Got Toilet Paper? Meet One Utah Family Using Food Storage To Help Neighbors

Phot of young girls in front of shelves of canned goods.
Courtesy Emily Cottam.
The Cottam family, who live in Taylorsville, have a food storage in their home that they estimate can last about a year. During the COVID-19 outbreak, they've been sharing their supply with neighbors.

When coronavirus hit Utah, people started panic buying — stocking up on food, supplies and lots of toilet paper. Empty shelves have become a defining image of the pandemic. 

But for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stockpiling food and supplies is nothing new. Some are even using their food storage to help others in this moment of crisis. 

On a recent afternoon, 11-year-old Caitlin Cottam walked downstairs in her family’s Taylorsville home to show off their food supply on a video call. She flicked on the light, revealing floor to ceiling shelves filled with food, paper towels and first aid kits. 

“We have jello and honey and lots of canned food like soup,” she said. 

Caitlin’s mom, 42-year-old Emily Cottam, said they have enough food down there to last about a year. She’s a life-long Mormon and grew up with the idea of self-reliance. 

“I've always heard church leaders say ‘We want you to have this food storage. It probably will never be used for worldwide catastrophe, but on an individual basis,’” Emily Cottam said.

But the point really hit home for her when she was a kid and her dad lost his job. 

“My mom remembers just sitting down in the food storage room crying, thinking, ‘Okay, thankfully, we have this food supply,’” Emily Cottam said.

Her own food supply started as a wedding gift from her parents. She and her husband have used it to get through some hard times themselves, like when he was finishing up school.

Now her husband is a dentist, and Emily Cottam said she’s not worried about losing income. But her daughter Caitlin said as she watches shelves at the grocery store get cleaned out, she’s happy there’s extra food at home. 

“It makes me feel more peaceful and not so stressed because I know that we have food and we won't be hungry,” Caitlin Cottam said.

Food storage is part of a larger ethos of self-reliance in the church, according to Matthew Bowman, a history professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies Mormonism. Back in the 1800s, Mormons were violently cast out of several states and fled to what is now Utah.

“The leaders of the church wanted to encourage an independent and self-sufficient economy in the Great Basin,” Bowman said, “one that would not require importation of supplies from the outside world and this storage was seen as a way to do that.”

Photo of grain silos.
Credit Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints runs a welfare program for its members to give food to those that can't afford it. Some of that food comes from the Church's stockpile of grains.

Keeping a food supply became an official recommendation during the Great Depression. It came at the same time as the Church instituted its own welfare program, which gives food to members who can’t afford it. 

“Sickness, injury, unemployment may affect any of us,” then-president Gordon B. Hinckley said during the October 2002 General Conference. “We have a great welfare program, with facilities for such things as grain storage in various areas. But the best place to have some food set aside is within our homes … The best welfare program is our own welfare program.” 

The program was criticized when it was created during the Great Depression, Bowman said, for not taking care of people in need outside the Church. That goes back to the Church’s history of wanting to create its own nation and economy. 

“This sort of sense that the church is a community in its own right, and there's a sense of sort of self-sufficiency and independence that the Church has long sought to cultivate,” Bowman said.

While the welfare program generally only benefits members, Bowman added that Mormons are also taught to help others outside that community. 

“Members of congregations, often as kind of collective groups, will go to places like homeless shelters and libraries and that sort of thing to do a sort of service work,” Bowman said.

In the time of coronavirus, the Cottams are using their stockpile to help others.

Caitlin and her younger sister Kendra have made a game out of delivering soap and toilet paper to their elderly neighbors, both Mormons and non-Mormons, who either don’t want to go to the store or can’t find the supplies they need there. 

“We made notes and put them on toilet paper, soap and wipes. And then we went and put them on our neighbor's doorsteps,” Caitlin Cottam said. 

Kendra Cottam jumped in to finish the story: “And then we rang the doorbell and ran away,” she said. 

The sisters hid nearby to watch their neighbors reactions and said they only got caught a few times.

Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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