SALT LAKE CITY — Kimberley Burke pauses at the door of the emergency food pantry, taking a deep breath before she timidly steps inside. The seconds tick by uncomfortably as she stands — high-heeled boots turned in, fingers laced tightly together — warily scanning the room. She's not quite sure how this welfare thing works.
"Someone told me you guys could help me?" she says tentatively, voice barely audible above the clinking and clanging of two homeless people packing canned goods into a piece of battered luggage.
Before the recession hit, Utah had one of the lowest rates of food-stamp usage in the county. The state's economy weathered the storm better than most, but still, the past five years have brought tens of thousands of people like Burke to their knees. Now Utah's food stamp program is one of the fastest growing in the country.
Utah saw a nearly 30 percent increase in food-stamp participation in January from the same month a year earlier. Between January 2006 and January 2011, the number of Utahns who signed up for the federal program skyrocketed 124 percent. On a national level, participation increased by just 12 percent and 66 percent respectively.
Utah's sudden descent into the world of welfare tells and interesting story about the state's pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps culture, said Dwight Israelsen, a professor of economics at Utah State University. Historically, Utah has had low participation because "self reliance is a cultural norm."
"The sudden, steep incline in the number of people signing up tells us that people waited as long as they possibly could before asking for help," he said. "These people have exhausted all their resources."
About 236,000 people qualified for food stamps in 2008 but only about half signed up, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service's most recent report on participation rates. To be eligible, a family of three would have to have made less than $1,984 a month.
The attitude of self-reliance stretches back to the 1850s when pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first settled the valley. Utahns were forced to be self-reliant because they were "about 1,000 miles from markets in either direction," Israelsen said. Church leaders continue to preach the idea of turning first to family and community.
"There's a social stigma attached to accepting help from the government," Israelsen said. "When things are bad, you try everything else first and then, if you have no other option, that's when you turn to the government."
Things started going downhill for Burke when her husband was laid off from his job driving a cement truck last year. She struggled to support the family on a minimum wage inventory job. Then, in September, she was let go, too.
Making the decision to sign up for food stamps wasn't a pleasant decision, she said. But it wasn't hard, either. Her water had been turned off for a month. The electricity would soon follow. She didn't have anything to feed her two children for dinner.
"It's kind of do or die," she said. "You have to feed your kids. You do what you have to do."
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, is all too familiar with the "cultural bias" against federal welfare programs, she said. Her nonprofit's mission is to fight it.
"It's so frustrating," she said. "There are still so many people who are eligible for food stamps who are not accessing the benefit."
To encourage people to sign up, Utah has streamlined the application process. Most states require a face-to-face interview. In Utah, all the necessary forms can be filled out online. Interviews are done over the phone.
"We believe everyone who is eligible should apply," Cornia said. "I can't stress it enough: it's not a welfare program; it's a nutrition program."
Burke calls it a "life-saving program."
"I don't know what I would have done without it," she said.
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