Story and photo by CECELIA FENNELL
Efforts to end hunger in Utah continue beyond September, the state’s hunger action month, because food donations and distributions from food pantries only feed a small percent of the hungry.
That’s why Utahns Against Hunger, a nonprofit organization based on the west side of Salt Lake City, works to develop more effective community outreach programs for the larger percentage of Utah’s hungry. It does this by providing programs for low-income communities instead of providing direct services.
“Food pantries only feed a small percentage of the hungry so we provide other options and programs to meet all hunger needs in Utah,” said Mike Evans, associate director of Utahns Against Hunger. One option is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, a food stamps program.
According to UAH’s website, the organization was originally a project run out of Crossroads Urban Center in the late 1970s. As the community realized the need to improve federal nutrition programs statewide, it was established in 1981 as its own nonprofit organization. Since its beginning, UAH has worked to expand the reach of nutrition programs to “an estimated 1 in 6 households in Utah” who struggle to afford enough food by presenting and passing bills through Utah’s legislature. UAH is not an emergency food provider; instead its mission is to work with policymakers and community leaders to shape public policy by making nutrition programs work for the people who need them.
UAH serves all of Utah, but specifically those in need. Evans said the individuals who are most in need happen to live on the west side, which is why most food pantries are located in that area. UAH commonly advertises its events and programs to homes on the west side. In the past, the nonprofit distributed door hangers with information written in English on one side, and Spanish on the other.
According to its website, “UAH offers 17 food assistance programs, projects and initiatives. One program, Food Stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP nationally, provides food assistance to low-income individuals and households through an electronic benefits transfer EBT card called the horizon card.”
Nathan Cram, director of Americorps VISTA, a partner of UAH, has been using food stamps himself over the past two years. Cram qualifies for food stamps because his net income is below the poverty level. He said the horizon card works a lot like a debit card and prevents many cases of fraud because of the rules associated with using it. It can only be used for food items and in stores that sell a majority of food products, he said.
“In order for an individual to qualify for the food stamps program, federal law requires that the individual’s net income be under poverty level,” Cram said. “Essentially they have to live on less than $900 each month,” he said. People can apply for food stamps through the Department of Workforce Services.
“Ninety-seven percent of food given to low-income communities comes from food stamps, only 6.6 percent comes from food pantries,” Cram said in a phone interview.
However, Evans said only 55 percent of those eligible of food stamps participate. “Some don’t know they’re eligible, some would rather seek other options and for others it’s an issue of humility – they want to be able to help themselves,” he said.
As an individual who has participated in SNAP, Cram encourages individuals who qualify for food stamps to participate because the quality of food is better.
“People surprisingly have more obesity in the low-income community because they can only afford foods high in fats and carbohydrates. Food stamps allow higher-quality food,” Cram said.
He also recommends using the food stamp calculator on UAH’s website to get an estimate on eligibility.
Since Utahns Against Hunger is an advocacy organization, it doesn’t need volunteers like food pantries and other nonprofits typically do. Directors of UAH encourage people to speak with local legislative leaders about existing hunger issues as a means to get involved.
“One of the best ways for people to get involved is by talking with their political leaders, volunteering and standing up and having a voice,” Evans said.