The sparseness of the food pantry under the stairs at St. Paul's Episcopal Church frustrates Susan Saalsaa. There's not much on the shelves and the small pantry - it used to be a closet - serves more and more families every month.

Saalsaa is not alone in her frustration.Welfare reform has cut the number of Americans eligible for food stamps, the main federal program to keep the poor from going hungry. But even those remaining on food stamps - which average less than 70 cents per person per meal - seek supplemental help at Utah food pantries. Most of them are employed.

And a large segment of low-income Utahns don't even apply for food stamps because they don't know they can or are too embarrassed to ask for help, said Susan Soleil of Utahns Against Hunger.

The result is, Utah food pantries serve 12 percent to 30 percent more people each month, said Dixie Burbidge, food drive coordinator for the Utah Food Bank.

The trend is expected to steadily increase, and officials fear the Utah Food Bank will run out of food by the end of the summer.

Soleil said the dichotomy lies in a program that was never intended to meet a person's entire food needs and an economy in which low-paying jobs leave people in poverty.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors reported 1997 showed the largest increase - 16 percent - in five years for emergency food in 29 American cities. Nearly 20 percent of people were turned away from pantries and 46 percent of cities said charities were providing inadequate amounts of food.

Salt Lake officials called the situation "critical," noting that 65 percent of people seeking food assistance had jobs.

The problem extends to rural Utah. The Duchesne County Food Pantry has added 600 new families to its rolls since last July. Many are the working poor and senior citizens, said director Lesley Harmston.

Burbidge said the answer to the increased need must be met in the community in increased wages or increased donations, or pantries will run out of food.

Even now, the Food Bank, which provides food to service organizations and pantries, has commercial products available but not much in way of items with nutritional value.

"Sometimes their choices are chips and candy instead of beans and meats," Burbidge said. "The community needs to step in and say, `How do we handle this?' "

Soleil contends educating those in poverty about available food stamp dollars is one place to start. The state rates poorly when it comes to people applying for the program, and tracking them is difficult.

Minerva Arevalo, who works at the food pantry in Ogden's Community Action Program, serves people who receive food stamps and are still in need. Housing, transportation, medical and other costs eat up a family's budget, leaving little, if anything, over for groceries, she said.

Thousands of Utahns are eligible, Soleil said, and her agency tries to find them through outreach programs and distributing fliers to food pantries.

Utahns Against Hunger also is coordinating training sessions for officials around the state, teaching workers how to do food stamp calculations, which determine whether someone is eligible for food stamps.

A training session in Price was held last month. Additional training sessions will be held in Provo June 24 and in Salt Lake County later this summer.