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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Ashley Medina of North Salt Lake cans oats in the dry-pack area. Demand for food-storage items has soared as the economy has soured.

Jorge Carranza sits at a computer at LDS Employment Resource Services at Welfare Square, searching for a company looking for a worker like him.

He has come to Salt Lake City after running a California marble and granite store for 20 years. But after struggling to make ends meet the past three years, he left the shop in other hands. He's now living here in Utah with his daughters.

"Otherwise, I would be homeless," Carranza says, his voice filled with emotion. "I'm looking for anything. Anything."

The LDS job-assistance service is seeing a rise in unemployed or underemployed professionals, construction workers and other Utah residents. Its database of executives alone has grown from about 2,000 job seekers a year ago to 2,800 now, said Ballard S. Veater, manager of the service at Welfare Square. The employment office — one of 285 worldwide — sees 20 to 25 other job seekers every day. A year ago, maybe 15 came in each day.

It's not the only service offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that has seen an uptick in demand.

The LDS Church's home food-storage centers are seeing more consumers than in late 1999, when the nation scrambled to purchase supplies as the millennium, and a host of unknowns, approached.

"This actually has exceeded that Y2K usage," Jim Goodrich, group manager at Welfare Square, said of activity in the first six months of this year. "Now, it's just settling down."

Economic and other conditions are contributing to the rising demand. Unemployment has increased to 3.5 percent in Utah, up from 2.7 percent a year ago, with 12,800 construction jobs lost in July alone. Food prices have gone up 5 percent in the past five months.

The recent Wells, Nev., earthquake, along with high gas prices, rice rationing at stores and news of struggling wheat crops also may be playing a part in the food-storage demand, Goodrich said.

"Put it all together, and people say, 'Maybe this is the time to get our home storage.' People just started coming in droves," he said.

The influx began in January, but demand has quieted in the past month or so, he said. At one point, the church couldn't truck foodstuffs to distribution centers fast enough to meet demand.

Welfare Square consists of several services of the church, including Deseret Industries thrift store, the Bishops' Storehouse food pantry for those in need and the Home Storage Center.

The latter is one of several locations where church members can buy food basics such as wheat and rice in bulk, or the members can stay and package the food to increase its shelf life to decades. At the cannery, people volunteer to can goods, including spaghetti sauce, honey and salsa, and at the end of the day, they may buy some goods at cost.

The idea is to help families stock up on food storage. Church leaders encourage members to have at least a three-month supply to guard against hunger in the event of a disaster or job loss.

"I have children. If my husband loses a job, gets laid off or something happens, I have food in the house," said Salt Lake resident Holley Smith, who was with Jean Barton on Tuesday at the Home Storage Center as they packaged sugar, milk, flour, grains, even some onions and apple slices, to rotate and build their food storage.

Meanwhile, Bountiful resident Angie Piggott came to Welfare Square to can goods, partly because of rising food costs.

"We're in kind of a recession, and I feel we need to build up and prepare," she said, "for when harder times come."

But for thousands of others, hard times already are here.

Executives looking for work through the LDS Employment Resource Services — whether they are unemployed, underemployed or wanting to change jobs — meet Mondays at LDS Business College. Ninety-five showed up this week; 54 were new faces, Veater said. About 90 new executives have come in the past two weeks combined.

But those being hardest hit by the economic downturn are those with minimal skills and construction workers, Veater said.

Employment Resource Services' service missionary Edward Mayer has seen an increase in people from Arizona, Nevada and California, where the housing downturn has been the worst.

The service seeks to link job seekers to employers, line up the job seekers with Utah College of Applied Technology or Salt Lake Community College courses to improve job skills, and help with resumes and job-interview preparation, Veater said. The service also invites employers to the facility to interview potential workers.

On Tuesday, the Utah Transit Authority came to interview about a dozen people on site. Recently, 104 job seekers crowded the office in hopes of interviewing with Intermountain Healthcare.

Carranza on Tuesday made his first visit to the office. He's hopeful his situation, at last, can turn around.

"I have my health. I believe in God," Carranza said. "So everything will be fine. I'm sure."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com