It's two days before Christmas and a line has formed outside of Crossroads Urban Center's food pantry. Hundreds of families are picking up food baskets for the holidays.

The supply of baskets is exhausted just before Millie and her six children step up to the desk. Millie has no food at home and staff members assure her they will get her a basket; they'll get more food at the Food Bank."Wait," another recipient says. "You can take mine. I only have one child and you have six."

It is Christmastime and even these people - poor, dirty, tired and hungry - are embracing the season. They are sharing.

*** Emergency food pantries in Salt Lake County, intended to provide crucial short-term help for new arrivals, the recently unemployed or people who have a waiting period before picking up welfare grants, are becoming an important - and normal - component of fighting hunger.

"People used to come into the emergency food pantry until they got their food stamps," said Sandy Fink of Crossroads Urban Center, Utah's largest pantry. "But stamps don't provide enough to make it through the month and access to the system is difficult at best."

Besides Crossroads, Salt Lake County has six Community Action Program pantries, the Indian Walk-In Center and a number of small pantries operated by churches. Each one receives food from the Community Services Council Food Bank. Several also hold food drives.

Emergency food pantries provide a three-day food supply to people in crisis.

"We have the final safety net," said Dick Winters, director of the Community Services Council. "When people have fallen through everything else, our fabric's usually tight enough to catch them. We're there to see we don't have hungry people."

Food pantry use is up significantly, according to Steve Johnson, director of Utahns Against Hunger. "In Salt Lake County, we're up 53 percent this year. Share Incorporated in Ogden has handed out about 7,000 food packages since 1975 - about a third of that just last year. In the last decade, we have seen a deteriorating economy in Utah, with more people out of work or getting less pay. Programs that are supposed to help people in crisis have been cut back."

The six Community Action Program pantries served about 20,000 people last year, according to Cathy Hoskins, operations director.

Chuck Whyte, a VISTA volunteer at Crossroads Urban Center, said the center prepared 836 food boxes in September to feed 1,955 individuals; 639 in October for 1,487 individuals and 749 in November for 1,733 individuals. In addition, they prepared 714 Thanksgiving food orders for 2,073 people. Around 600 families received Christmas baskets.

Crossroads also tracks certain demographic information. For example, in November, 91 of the 749 cases were homeless people, and 288 cases had no income at all.

Numbers were not available for all pantries, but it's obvious a lot of people are relying on food pantries. Inevitably, the question of "double-dipping" arises.

Each pantry has its own rules. You can get help from Crossroads five times in a 12-month period; you can visit a CAP pantry six times.

"It's not an integrated system," Johnson said. "All the outlets have their own rules. Most require information to establish need and some proof that children are living in a household. When the caseload goes up, the rules usually get tighter."

Winters said the food bank requires each pantry it supplies to document where the food went. That is periodically checked to make sure people are not going from pantry to pantry getting excessive amounts of food. But without a computer system, it's hard to really check.

"Some people probably do take advantage of the system. But not many. And to check everyone would create a burden the system couldn't bear."

"I don't worry about people who are double dippers," Fink said. "I think if they do it at all they do it because they have to survive. People don't see it as stealing."

What pantry operators find disturbing is the excessive need for the pantries.

"The system is in trouble," Johnson said. "And when the workers get stressed they start doing strange things to cut down the caseload. They may not even know they're doing it."

He cited a recent visit to an office where food stamps are distributed. There was no sign on the door. Another office had a nine-page application form, "certain," he said, "to discourage people from even applying." In Richfield, he said the forms were a quarter-inch thick and "the applicant was given forms normally filled out by the caseworker and applications for programs that don't even exist there."

In Vernal, he said, one caseworker had almost 1,000 cases and was spending a quarter of her time on paperwork.

"It's no wonder there are delays," Johnson said. "These people are being hit by what must seem like an insurmountable caseload. That leads to time lapses and hassles. And that, in turn, leads to the emergency pantries.

"If the other programs were working, why would these people go to some building for a bag of groceries? It's not a wonderful experience."

Hoskins agreed. "We're talking potatoes and canned corn here," she said. "Life-sustaining foods. People are not going to go out of their way to get more than they need of this kind of food. We don't even pretend to provide a balanced meal. We just fill stomachs."

Cutbacks in the commodities program have reduced the food available to poor Utahns.

What most people know as the "government cheese program," no longer has a surplus of cheese for distribution to the elderly and others needing emergency food assistance.

Nowadays, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Federal Foods Program distributes mostly cornmeal, flour and butter through the Utah Department of Social Services and Office of Education.

The USDA program began to help farmers and dairy producers get rid of surplus, but the poor and the elderly have come to rely on the mass distributions of government commodities, said Beth Van Antwerp, director of the program for state Social Services.

The Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, is the best known of the USDA Federal Food programs. It was TEFAP that distributed the millions of pounds of stored surplus cheese to the public - drawing long lines of elderly and needy people, and occasionally television cameras.

But Federal Foods also distributes surplus commodities to nutritional programs for the elderly, to private non-profit groups like food banks and soup kitchens, to summer camps, to government correctional institutions and to school lunch and breakfast programs.

Because the program relies mostly on surplus food for its stocks, its range and supplies of commodities are limited. The last of the "government cheese" was distributed earlier this year. Summer drought had a definite effect on the levels of surplus commodities.

"Other than butter, dairy products are in short supply," Van Antwerp said. "We have cornmeal, flour and butter, and a little honey. But it comes in dribs and drabs. We used to get six truckloads of cheese a month. There's nothing now that compares to that."

But TEFAP still sends eligible people away from its distributions with between $12 and $17 worth of food. Beginning in January, the program will distribute peanut butter. In the second quarter of 1989, surplus raisins will be distributed. Each qualifying household is eligible for a TEFAP food distribution every three months.

Those eligible for TEFAP commodities must have a household income under 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline. The income limit formerly was 185 percent of the guideline. But as supplies of surplus commodities tightened, so did eligibility requirements, she said.

An average of 113,000 households in the Salt Lake and Ogden areas received some kind of Federal Foods commodities assistance in each quarter of 1988, Van Antwerp said.

But the poorest of the poor may not be reached by the TEFAP program, especially in rural areas of Utah, because they lack transportation to mass distribution sites.

"We can only distribute as much as we have," Van Antwerp said. "After that it's hard to tell how many have gone without."

Next: Churches fight hunger.