The day that Amanda knew she "wasn't going to make it," she had half a quart of milk, a dozen eggs, one can of tuna fish and six graham crackers wrapped in plastic and carefully hoarded in the cupboard.
She also had a 7-year-old son and a recently laid-off husband.
"The first thing I did," she said, "was sit down and have a good cry. Then I bundled Jake up so he'd be warm and we headed for the (emergency food) pantry."Jim, at 27 a husband and father of two girls 11 and 8, moved seven times in a year, just keeping ahead of eviction notices and utility disconnections, before his family landed at the homeless shelter. His life has become a series of low-paying part-time jobs and scrambling to keep food in his children's stomachs.
"I only eat once a day, so there's a little more for the kids," he said. Food shortages are "constant for us. If you don't believe people are hungry, look behind the fast-food joints after hours. They do good business. Go to a soup line, look at my skinny kids."
In Utah, hunger doesn't discriminate. It hits the elderly person living on a fixed income and eating just enough to stay alive. It affects a child unable to concentrate at school because he didn't eat and a parent who skips meals or just nibbles so the children can have a little more. Hunger forces a homeless man to stand in line at a soup kitchen or "dumpster dive" behind a fast-food restaurant. Because of it, entire families go to sleep at night with an ache that never quite goes away.
Hunger also doesn't stand still to be counted. Taking "head counts" at the food pantries and soup kitchens only hints at the extent of the problem. Unfortunately, that's all that's available. By taking into consideration the number of people getting food stamps, the picture becomes a little clearer.
Crossroads Urban Center, the largest food pantry in the state, provided three-day emergency food for 21,449 individuals in 1987. This year, an unofficial count shows at least 22,000 have been served.
During the past year, the six emergency food pantries operated by the Community Action Program (CAP) in Salt Lake County provided three-day food packages for up to 20,000 people. "Four years ago, we were only seeing 3,000-4,000 people in a year," said Cathy Hoskins, director of operations for the Salt Lake CAP.
Then there are the soup kitchens. St. Vincent De Paul Center, operated by Catholic Community Services, averages 500 people a day for lunch - most of them homeless, according to acting director Genie Lamb.
The Rescue Mission, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, feeds between 95 and 140 individuals each day, for a total of about 400 meals.
On Sundays, brunch under the Fourth South overpass attracts from 300-800 people. Counts were not available from several churches that operate smaller soup kitchens and food giveaway programs.
The face of hunger is changing, according to those who deliver services. While hunger has traditionally haunted the homeless population, the number of "pre-homeless" families and individuals is increasing. Parents trying to support families on minimum-wage earnings (the so-called working poor) and those who receive food stamps and other forms of public assistance are becoming more frequent visitors to food banks as they run out of supplies between paydays or before the next month's stamps are available.
Nearly equal numbers of two-parent and one-parent families have to seek outside help to get adequate sustenance. About 200 frail, homebound elderly residents rely on the Community Services Council for food boxes, and workers estimate that there are many more senior citizens who could benefit from the service.
"Anyone who tells you there isn't genuine hunger out there is misled," said Dick Winters, executive director of the Community Services Council, which operates the food bank that supplies numerous pantries in Salt Lake County and beyond. "While there is some problem with people who try to take advantage of the system, that's not as widespread as people like to say it is."
Hunger, according to a two-year-old study of needy people conducted by Crossroads Urban Center and the University of Utah Graduate School of Social Work, appears in subtle forms: Needy families skip meals, eat the same type of food over and over or eat less food. Most hungry people, the study found, eat enough to stay moderately alert. Slightly less than half had no food on hand and reported feeling lethargic and hopeless. None of those surveyed were receiving a balanced diet.
"We (food pantries) don't even pretend to provide balanced meals," Hoskins said. "We settle for giving something to fill the stomach."
Much of the blame for the rapid increase in people seeking emergency food supplies can be placed on government's delivery system, said Steve Johnson, director of Utahns Against Hunger.
There are too many cases and not enough workers, he said. "Statewide, except for a very few offices, it's taking the full 30 days to get Food Stamps and the full 45 days allowed by federal regulations to get Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare).
"But when Utahns apply for help, most wait until the very last minute, when they're desperate, hoping they can pull things together. Then they find it's going to be a month."
Johnson also blamed what he called a "deteriorating economy." More people, he said, are out of work or getting less pay.
Hoskins agreed. "Jobs that used to be available - low-skill jobs - aren't there any more. As middle-income people are laid off by high tech, they're taking those jobs. So the poor are getting poorer - and some middle class are coming pretty close."
Rising costs for essentials like utilities and rent are taking a toll; so are cutbacks in government surplus commodities and tight program budgets.
The National Campaign to End Hunger and Homelessness points out some of the dangers of poor nutrition, focusing primarily on the country's 12 million children who are hungry. They are four times as likely to do poorly in school and nine times as likely to drop out. Those who do leave school are four times more likely to need public assistance just to provide housing and utilities than high school graduates. And that doesn't take into account related problems of teenage pregnancy and higher crime rates. Things don't get much better as these children become adults, either.
Physical illness increases markedly in the chronically hungry, ranging from depression, withdrawal and lethargy to an increased number of colds, flu and infections. Accidents and emergency surgeries have on occasion been attributed to hunger, as have miscarriages and problem pregnancies. Diagnosed illnesses, including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, ulcers and high blood pressure can result from poor nutrition.
Next: Food stamps.