Ruth is more than 80 years old. Last week, she was released from a hospital and a staff member from a local pantry took her a three-day food supply.

"When I put the groceries away for her, I found she had two things in her cupboard. A box of soda crackers and a little cat food."Utahns don't like to talk about being hungry. They're even ashamed to admit it. During visits to several food pantries, the Deseret News was unable to find a single person who would go on record and tell his story.

Instead, they talked in general terms about it, saying things like, "It's hard," or a simple "I don't know what to do. I'm about at the end of my rope."

When the Deseret News promised privacy - the use of first names only - the stories poured out. These are the stories of hunger in Utah:

Mary and Gene support their five children on the $533 grant they receive from welfare. Normally, a two-parent family wouldn't qualify, but Joe has lupus and tuberculosis.

They are at Crossroads to get emergency food, something they do about three times a year "when my food stamps are messed up," Mary said. This time, the stamps are late.

Mary worries about her 2-year-old son.

"He used to talk," she tells the food pantry staffer, "but now he won't at all. He seems listless." The other children, she says, don't sleep well and are cranky.

When a Deseret News photographer met Chuck, he was standing outside the soup kitchen at St. Vincent De Paul Center. He agreed to have his photo taken, clutching a small, brown bag of pastries someone gave him.

"That's all I've eaten since yesterday," he said.

Jason, LaNae and three kids recently arrived in Salt Lake City from Farmington, N.M., where he had worked in the oil industry.

A year ago they had jobs and savings, but a downturn in the industry sent him from state to state seeking work. Now, after a year, he's not sure he'll ever find the type of job he's qualified for.

"We used our savings first and didn't worry much," Jason said. But when the savings were gone they started to sell personal belongings. They arrived in Utah with a few clothes, a battered car and a loaf of bread and small jar of mayonnaise.

"We're not really losers," LaNae said. "We're just kind of losing this one fight. That's all. It'll get better."

"Unfortunately, we have the idea that if we apply ourselves, we can take care of things ourselves," said the Rev. Canon Bradley S. Wirth of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. "Sometimes, we have to admit that things, circumstances beyond our control, occur and we need help. A big problem in fighting hunger is improving the self-image of the hungry."

The food stamp offices, the pantries, the lines outside the soup kitchens are filled with such circumstances: lost jobs, catastrophic illnesses, disease, mental illness, simple misfortunes piling up.

"We all live pretty close to the edge," Sandy Fink, Crossroads Urban Center, said.

"Most of us are only a couple of paychecks from the street," said Steve Erickson, Utah Issues and the Salt Lake County Homeless Committee.

Utahns seem to understand that and are very generous when asked to donate food. The food bank, operated by Community Services Council, sorted and distributed more than 1 million pounds of food to pantries in Salt Lake County last year - but they still ran out by fall.

A recent Boy Scout food drive gathered more than 500 tons of food.

Record numbers of Utahns "Shared the Harvest" this summer, donating their private garden surpluses to their needy neighbors.

And churches joined together in an ecumenical "Hunger Sabbath," bringing in quantities of canned and packaged goods as an offering for the hungry.

Even local restaurants and pizza parlors have gotten into the anti-hunger business, offering discounts and prizes to people who bring in food.

The advocates and pantry operators wonder if Utahns can be expected to do more than that. They also wonder if it would help.

Studies have found that food, in times of financial crisis, becomes an expendable item - a luxury. When the landlord threatens eviction or the utility company demands payment, many people balance their bills by doing without food - orwithout enough food.

In turn, people who go without food fall prey to illness, depression and accidents. Some turn to crime. Some become violent.

The Deseret News heard different suggestions for dealing with the issue of hunger among the residents of the state.

"We want to start a Hunger Prevention Coalition," said Fink. "The first thing we need to do is get a good count of the hungry.

The working poor are a sore spot for government officials and advocates alike. Recent self-sufficiency and welfare reform efforts have touted the work ethic and emphasized "get a job."

But while most agree that any job is better than none, and can be used as a stepping stone, Fink wonders if it isn't "more degrading to be working and still not making it. You must really be bad if you can work full time and still be poor."

"Americans are hungry, and it's the result of decades of ignoring a problem and hoping it would go away," said Steve Johnson, director of Utahns Against Hunger. "We have to confront it."

"Hunger is everyone's problem," Cathy Hoskins, Community Action Program food pantry operations director, said. "Not just from a humanity viewpoint. If we don't help people take care of themselves, then eventually we as taxpayers will have to take care of them.

"In the 1960s, people were able to focus on pockets of poverty," Rev. Wirth said. "It was generally in the `ghettos.' Now we think, `If there's no ghetto, there's no hunger.' It's not true."

A lot of variables create hunger. "The unemployed steel worker cannot combat the fact that it's cheaper to produce steel overseas," said Rev. Wirth. Neither can the guy who lost his job when an appliance plant closed in California and moved across the border."

But until the answers are found, programs must be available for people, Johnson said. "When things get tight, the programs that are supposed to help people are the ones that get cut. It doesn't make sense."

The University-Crossroads study called for a partnership between private individuals, corporate America, lawmakers, religious groups and government. Only through such an alliance and commitment can the problem be solved, it said.

Johnson would like to see the public take a lobbying role, as well. "We need to let our lawmakers know that we believe in the need to support programs that provide the basics of existence. It's not acceptable to keep taking from the poor when things get tight. They suffer because they are the most vulnerable."