Utah has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country and the problem is growing. In 2004, Utah ranked seventh out of all 50 states in terms of population affected by food insecurity, which is not having access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
"We went from 14.6 percent to 14.8 percent of Utahns experiencing food insecurity," explained Gina Cornia, director of Utahns Against Hunger.
The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 350,000 Utahns currently face hunger or food insecurity. Many of those affected are children and senior citizens. Despite the fact that programs exist in public schools to help alleviate hunger for young children, such as school lunch and school breakfast, senior citizens do not always have immediate access or a willingness to participate in free or low-cost food programs.
"When you look at people in the older generation, their self-sufficiency is a matter of pride for them," explained Carolyn Hunter, associate director of the American Association of Retired Persons. "It's very hard for them to accept something they consider welfare or the concept of being 'on the dole."
Part of the problem is that while the number of hungry and food insecure can be estimated, the USDA does not provide demographic information of these people, therefore those suffering remain faceless and hidden behind the statistics.
"There's really no reliable data on how many of the food insecure are children or elderly," Cornia said. "Much of the information is completely anecdotal."
For seniors, the high cost of prescription medicines often eats into their food budgets. Many senior citizens are faced with the option of purchasing life-saving medication instead of fresh vegetables and nutritious food.
Utah has the financial resources through both public and private programs to effectively combat hunger, and yet few opt to take advantage of such programs. The perception of participation in these food programs such as emergency food pantries, Food Stamps, church-sponsored food and meal programs, and school lunch for families is an embarrassing prospect for those who value self sufficiency and shun charity.
In an effort to provide high-quality food at low prices, The Community Food Co-op of Utah provides an alternative for all Utahns-and especially the food insecure-to purchase high-quality food for less than they could at supermarkets and membership warehouse stores. The co-op takes orders from its members, and in turn orders food from the same distributors that supply grocery stores. Food is distributed at several locations throughout the valley. Because the co-op can order in bulk, thus reducing overhead costs incurred by grocery stores, and because it relies on its member-volunteers for distribution, purchasers of food from the co-op receive a variety of fresh produce, meat and other quality food for 33 percent and up to 50 percent off grocery store prices.
"This program is open to everyone who eats," said Jana Dickson, the co-op's director. "The more people who participate, the greater the savings are for everyone. By helping yourself to low prices for your food, you are helping food become less expensive for others. It's a great way to build community by helping others get on their feet. Everyone benefits."
The co-op asks for a one-time lifetime membership fee of $5.00, but will happily waive it for those in need. Members order from a current offering of two different food packages: The Standard Share, which contains several servings of fresh vegetables and fruits, several pounds of a variety of meats, pre-packaged bean-soup mix and whole-grain bread ($21.00); and The Harvest Share, which contains more servings of vegetables than the Standard Share but no meat ($14.00). The co-op also offers shade-grown, fair-trade gourmet coffee and when co-op purchasers can find a bargain, they pass it along to members. For example, in February, members could purchase 10 5-oz., bacon-wrapped steaks for $12 in addition to their food packages. The co-op even accepts Food Stamps (The Horizon Card) as payment for food packages to support its mission of serving the food endangered.
"I found out about the co-op in the Daily Utah Chronicle at the University of Utah," said Sarah Hemmert, a new co-op member who lives in married-student housing. "I liked the idea of it being a community-action program providing lower-cost food. I really liked the possibility of actually getting fresher and better produce than I could find in the grocery store."
Developed as an outreach program of Crossroads Urban Center, the co-op is based on the SHARE-model of bulk-ordering co-ops around the country, whose charter is to help families save about 50 percent on their groceries, while encouraging the building of relationships with neighbors and others in the community. Their motto: "if you eat, you qualify." The co-op's first distribution was in January and momentum continues to build.
"It's still early but our congregation is excited about being able to interact with many members of the community we wouldn't be able to reach otherwise," said Jessica Patton, the co-op team leader at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City. Many from her congregation are participating because of the food quality and savings. Others participate out of need. "One man told me that this was more food than he had ever purchased at one time in his whole life," she explained.
One of the greatest benefits of the co-op is that it dispels the stigma of being charity food.
"This program has nothing to do with charity," said Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center. "You're paying 100-percent of the cost of the food."
"This is a wonderful way for everyone to keep their dignity," said Loyda Kyremus, a co-op team leader at Wasatch Presbyterian Church. She stresses that there is no stigma associated with membership.
The co-op's offerings work particularly well for seniors on fixed incomes.
"I've seen people on fixed incomes eat healthier because of the co-op," observed Emily Huff, a VISTA Americorp outreach coordinator for the co-op and a senior citizen. "It's a great package for diabetics, they get to choose fresh vegetables and the best quality of meat."
In its desire to build the community, the co-op supports many local farmers and growers. "The apples come from Santaquin, the onions from Layton and the beans from Honeyville," Dickson said.
As it evolves, the co-op hopes to offer more choices to its members. "The beauty of the co-op is that members have a voice in how it grows," Dickson said.
Chuck Smith, a Davis county member, envisions the co-op as a complement to the "Kids Kreate" after-school program. His vision is to have kids build a robot to sort food packages.
"The program gives kids the opportunity to learn in a fun environment," he explained. "Then their families buy into the idea of the co-op because it's something they're actively participating in." Smith echoes the sentiment of other members. "This program takes the resources of the earth, mixes it with the best of human potential and makes something that works for all of us."
For more information about joining the co-op and placing an order, call (801)364-7765 ext. 127 or (888) 747-8482 or visit www.crossroads-u-c.org. Orders should be placed before March 17th for delivery on March 25th. Food stamp vouchers are available through the co-op.