We're seeing more and more people on fixed incomes. They're embarrassed. They tell us things like 'I never thought I'd have to come to a food pantry but I need it'. —Rob Harter, executive director of The Christian Center of Park City
SALT LAKE CITY — One in seven Utah households struggles with hunger, a new federal report reveals.
Nationally, more than 50.1 million Americans lived in households that were food insecure in 2011, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
The report showed 14.9 percent of American households were food insecure at some time during 2011, up slightly from 14.5 percent in 2010. Some 14.6 percent of Utah households were "food insecure," according to the report.
Food insecurity is the term used to describe a person or households uncertain of having or unable to acquire enough food to meet their needs or the needs of all household members because of a lack of money or other resources for food.
Rob Harter, executive director of The Christian Center of Park City, said as the nation's economy sputters, he has observed a shift in the clientele served by the nonprofit's food pantry. The pantry distributed food to more than 34,000 people last year.
Users are primarily low-wage Latino workers but a growing number of older, Caucasian seniors are seeking assistance, too.
"We're seeing more and more people on fixed incomes. They're embarrassed. They tell us things like 'I never thought I'd have to come to a food pantry but I need it,' " Harter said
While the pantry primarily serves residents of Wasatch and Summit counties, Harter said some people travel from Salt Lake City three times a week because "there's clearly a need."
Utahns Against Hunger is working to help people apply for public assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), to reach more people who qualify, but may not know how to access the help.
"We are particularly concerned about those households on fixed incomes, seniors and households with disabilities are sometimes hard to reach and we need to do more to make sure those households are not going hungry," said Marti Woolford, outreach coordinator for UAH.
SNAP helps low-income individuals and families obtain nourishing food they would not otherwise be able to afford. Benefits are determined by income, family size and assets.
Among the Utah households considered to be food insecure, 5.2 percent were considered to have "very low food security." That means they experience deeper hunger, cut back or skip meals on a frequent basis, which includes adults and children.
Despite those numbers, Congress is considering budget cuts to the program, according to the latest versions of the proposed Farm Bill, said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger.
This is "unacceptable" while a record number of Utah households are accessing SNAP benefits, said Cornia.
"It is our country's best and strongest response to those who need help affording enough food," Cornia said.
"Americans oppose cuts to SNAP. They believe it is a program worth funding and that government should — and must — do more to address hunger."
Directors of area emergency food banks say demand for help has spiked in recent years.
When Audra Roberts, who oversees Catholic Community Services' food pantry started working for the Salt Lake nonprofit three years ago, 125 families sought help each month. That number has tripled, said Roberts, emergency assistance program.
"We are getting families as far away as Lehi," she said.