Utah food pantries are struggling to meet the growing needs of hungry families while coping with shortages that occur in the lean season between summer's abundance of garden produce and the generosity that occurs from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

"We're facing a potential crisis in the emergency food program," said Grady Walker of Utahns Against Hunger. "There's an all-time high demand and supplies are inadequate. It's particularly noticeable in the Salt Lake Valley (where about half of the state's 28 food pantries are located), but the problem's statewide."Sandy Fink, Crossroads Urban Center, called the food shortage "critical."

"From November to January every year," she said, "people go crazy and give lots of food. It's great. That lasts until about June. Then supplies start dwindling. Right now, it's about gone."

Food pantry staffers are seeing more homeless, more two-parent families and more working poor. "I think the cumulative effects of cuts in social programs are catching up," Walker said. "By law, food stamps have to be issued within 30 days and it's beginning to take that long. The social service system is overburdened.

"What used to be the last resort - food pantries - are now the most accessible (source of help)," he said.

Crossroads estimates that 80-85 percent of their clientele have income below half the poverty level.

The food pantries cannot accept donations of home-canned goods. Everything must be commercially packaged. Food for children, who are the most vulnerable, is "desperately needed," Walker said, especially powdered milk, infant formula and hot cereals.

Protein foods like tuna and peanut butter are also sorely needed.

"When we had cheese in the commodities program," said Persis Melehes, Salt Lake Food Bank manager, which supplies most of the local pantries, "I didn't feel bad because we didn't have too much protein. Now there's no cheese, no honey, no rice, no milk. Those excellent foods are gone from the government give-aways, and we need more protein."

The government-sponsored commodities program now consists of flour and corn meal _ the corn meal in very limited quantities, Walker said.

The need for emergency food has grown by about a third each year since 1985, according to Fink. The SL Food Bank served about 47,000 people in 1985 and more than 107,000 in 1987.

"Those aren't exact figures," Walker said, "because although the food bank provides the lion's share, they don't provide all the food. Each pantry gets some doorstep donations. Those numbers just show the trend."

"People on welfare can't make it," Melehes said. "White-collar and blue-collar older workers who get laid off can't get jobs. Jobs just aren't out there any more. So many women are raising their children alone. And food banks always get hit hard around the beginning of the school year because people are trying to buy things like shoes _ or pay rent and utilities. They have to make decisions they shouldn't have to make."

"We're seeing a lot of elderly who never dreamed of going to a food bank, and they've had to reach out," she said, citing medical bills, high cost of living and unplanned-for occurrences. "They didn't plan to count entirely on Social Security. But their little nest egg turned out to be nothing."

Anyone wishing to donate food should contact Utahns Against Hunger, which can provide information on pantries throughout the state, at 328-2561, or the SL Food Bank, 486-2136.