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Food pantries and service organizations gear up, seek donations for the holiday season

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 5:57 a.m. MDT

Volunteers from AAA Utah unload and sort 136 turkeys to be delivered to various non-profits organizations in Salt Lake City. The turkeys will be prepared into meals to serve Utah's hungry and shut-ins, allowing the needy to participate in and enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Volunteers from AAA Utah unload and sort 136 turkeys to be delivered to various non-profits organizations in Salt Lake City. The turkeys will be prepared into meals to serve Utah's hungry and shut-ins, allowing the needy to participate in and enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

With Thanksgiving days away and Christmas right around the corner, food banks and service organizations are looking for donations and help in meeting the needs of thousands of Utahns around the state.

Although Utah's unemployment rate dropped to 5.2 percent in October and is well below the national average of 7.9, many people in the state still need help, and food banks are seeing increases in the number of families coming to them for aid due to the season.

"Our clientele about doubles, going from 300 to 400 families a month to 600 to 800 in October, November and December," said Linda Hansen, executive director of the Box Elder Community Food Pantry. "That does create a need for donations."

According to Hansen, the food pantry has struggled through October because statewide food drives received smaller levels of donations this year. Community businesses, Boy Scouts of America and local schools stepped up to help, but the pantry is still in need of peanut butter, canned meats, chili and monetary donations.

The Family Connection Center in Davis County recently finished giving away turkeys and the ingredients for a Thanksgiving feast to its clients, and is now working on collecting toys for its Sub-for-Santa program.

The number of people turning to the Family Connection Center has increased, German Ochoa said, but that's been an ongoing issue since the 2009 recession.

"When the economy went down, we had a major increase of people looking for services and people looking for food," Ochoa said. "Right now we are serving about 700 families on a monthly basis, which is about 3,000 to 3,500 people, including kids and spouses and seniors."

In addition to its Sub-for-Santa program, which is putting a particular focus on gifts for teenagers ages 14 to 17, the Center is also collecting coats, jackets, shoes, gloves and hats, and is always hoping to take food.

"We're not picky at all," Ochoa said. "From dry goods to meat — you name it, we will take it all."

Like the Box Elder pantry, Ochoa said the community has rallied around the Family Connection Center, with businesses like Wal-Mart, Costco and Sam's Club donating items and doing service projects, and local churches coming and painting the inside of the building.

"That's a really neat thing to see when you see the community gather and help," Ochoa said.

The Bountiful Community Food Pantry is all set with turkey donations for Thanksgiving and has already turned its attention toward collecting breakfast items and hams for Christmas, as well as presents for its Sub-for-Santa Program.

"We really need help," pantry director Lorna Koci said. "If anybody thinks the economy is getting better, all they need to do is come and spend the day in a food pantry."

The pantry normally serves between 500 and 700 families every month and is seeing similar numbers to what it had in 2011, but it's serving more new people. The new clients are seen as "a huge success," according to Koci.

"We don't want loyal clients," Koci said. "We do case management, help people improve their situation when they can, and we help them try to move on so they will not need our help anymore. ... We're the 'teach the man to fish' more than 'give the man a fish.'"

While Utah County's Community Action Services and Food Bank saw donations drop some this year due to events like the cancellation of the BYU-University of Utah rivalry food drive, other pantries are struggling even more, spokesman Eric Lafferty said.

"There's definitely a need. As we talk to some of our sister agencies in areas like Price and Richfield, they're in a much worse situation than us because they don't have as many resources to call on for help," Lafferty said.

Lafferty hopes the new BYU-Utah Valley University "Valley United Against Hunger" drive will be the most successful food drive they've ever had, but it depends on people coming out and donating, he said.

For many shelters, want lists include items like chili, peanut butter, canned meats, fruits, vegetables, spaghetti sauce, rice, cooking oil and sugar. Others are seeking things like feminine hygiene products, Sub-for-Santa gifts or money.

The Salvation Army, which has several locations across Utah, is running a variety of holiday programs, including Angel Trees, food or toy drives and the traditional Red Kettle fundraising effort. The Salvation Army is also looking for volunteers to help sort and prepare toys collected through the Angel Tree Project.

Fundraising this year has been difficult so far, since political campaigns have taken a lot of the discretionary funds from typical donors, Major Richard Greene of the Salt Lake Salvation Army said.

The Utah Food Bank website lists more than 50 food pantries across Utah, while the United Way 2-1-1 website includes information about holiday volunteer opportunities and lists of county resources for people in need of aid.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company