Where empty larders find overflowing hearts

Mormons in need turn to church’s food pantry

Andres Saenz of Peabody visited the Mormon storehouse. His father, Robert, is supporting six people, including his in-laws, and has been struggling to make ends meet at his real estate job. Andres Saenz of Peabody visited the Mormon storehouse. His father, Robert, is supporting six people, including his in-laws, and has been struggling to make ends meet at his real estate job. (SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / August 8, 2009

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WORCESTER - The shelves of the warehouse look much like those at a small, well-stocked grocery, but there are no prices, there is no cash register, and there are no employees.

Volunteers escort the consumers down the aisle, working off a checklist as they place anything from pancake mix to toilet paper to spaghetti sauce into the shopping carts.

No money changes hands, because the consumers, by and large, have no jobs. It is the Mormon church’s version of a food pantry, where many of the packaged goods and even the frozen meat carry the church’s own private label, Deseret, and the operation is financed by tithing and periodic fasting by church members.

The facility, called a bishop’s storehouse, is a key part of a vast Mormon welfare system that is largely without parallel in the world of religion. And now, in yet another indication of the toll the recession has taken on the United States, usage of Mormon storehouses is up by an estimated 30 percent, according to church officials in Utah and Massachusetts.

“A lot of people are proud and ashamed they need help,’’ said Gregory Hill, 39, of Springfield, who has been unemployed since being laid off as a DHL delivery driver last November, and who on a recent day drove the 45 minutes to Worcester to pick up free supplies for his family of four. “But nobody’s hiring.’’

It was during the darkest days of the Great Depression that the Mormon church organized its novel system for providing for its neediest members: a vast network of ranches, factories, canneries, grain silos, trucks, thrift stores, employment centers, and food distribution centers.

Mormon culture tends to discourage, but the church does not prohibit, its members from accepting government assistance.

“One of the earliest leaders of the church, Joseph F. Smith, said, ‘A religion which has not the power to save its people temporally . . . cannot be depended to save them spiritually’,’’ said Garth Mangum, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Utah and coauthor of “The Mormons’ War on Poverty: A History of LDS Welfare.’’

At the heart of the system are the 140 church-funded storehouses of groceries that congregational leaders can distribute to church members in need.

As many as a quarter of all Mormons were fed from bishops’ storehouses during the 1930s, but in the intervening decades, usage dropped off substantially, as Mormons became one of the nation’s most economically successful subgroups, with strong emphasis on self-sufficiency.

The facilities range from the showcase Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, with 16 million pounds of wheat in a grain elevator, to the lone storehouse in New England, a humble building in an office park in Worcester, which serves about 200 families a month.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in taking care of their own,’’ said Maury Hiers, president of the Mormons’ Boston stake, which is a grouping of about a dozen congregations in Eastern Massachusetts. “All of us go through trials in our lives, so the bishops get resources to help people.’’

The storehouses do not accept cash. The only way to get food and supplies is with a checklist filled out by a Mormon bishop, who is the leader of a Mormon ward, or congregation. The vast majority of the storehouse beneficiaries are Mormons, although bishops can help anyone, and local Mormon congregations are also donating goods from the storehouses to area food pantries to help non-Mormons in need.

The system is financed by church members who, in addition to tithing, are asked to fast one day a month and contribute the money they would have spent on food that day to the welfare system.

The facilities serve not only needy Mormons, but also church members seeking to comply with a church teaching urging them to have enough food on hand to survive for at least three months in the event of a sudden emergency, such as a hurricane, or an unexpected financial setback, such as a layoff. To that end, many of the storehouses, including the one in Worcester, include canning facilities, where Mormons can come to can their own long-term supplies.

The welfare system and, in particular, the distribution of free food are intended to be used only as a short-term solution by those in need, so the bishops also offer employment counseling, financial planning, English classes, networking, whatever it takes to help a family get back on its feet.

And recipients, whenever possible, are expected to give back by volunteering themselves. In Worcester, there is just one full-time employee, and the other workers are volunteers. Some receive food themselves, and others simply choose to help out.

“Our members are not going to be prosperous and happy unless they’re self-reliant, so we’re teaching them to be self-reliant,’’ Mangum said. “There is a big emphasis on skill training and so forth, always with self-reliance in mind, not with the notion that we’re going to help you forever.’’

In the early days of the Mormon welfare system, the church asked commercial farmers to barter a portion of their crop in exchange for labor. Then the church put its unemployed members to work clearing trees out of the Salt Lake Valley, painting houses, and cleaning streets in exchange for food they could take home.

“Something for nothing fosters a dependency and then an entitlement,’’ said James Goodrich, manager of Welfare Square. “We believe people ought to work.’’

But in the current economy, an increasing number of Mormons are finding themselves out of work.

Mormon bishops are increasingly facing requests for help from people who were gainfully employed until recently, and many of those seeking help are taking longer to return to the job market. In Utah, production of food for the storehouses has increased, and in Worcester, the pace of distribution has risen.

Robert Saenz, 29, of Peabody, said he avoided accepting help for a year, but gave in about a month ago. He is supporting six people, including his in-laws, and worked in real estate, about which he offers the understatement, “Sales are a little bit slow.’’ So on a recent day he, too, was in Worcester, loading bags of fruit, vegetables, meat, and milk into the trunk of his car.

“We wouldn’t be able to manage as much without the church helping us out,’’ he said.

Some Mormons have more chronic issues that lead them to ask for help. Eileen Kay, 65, of Auburn has a combination of health issues and high debt that led her to seek assistance from her bishop.

“The first time I had to come here, I was mortified, I was humiliated,’’ she said.

“It wasn’t until I volunteered [at the storehouse] that I became more understanding,’’ Kay said. “That helped me to feel that I was contributing, and not just taking.’’

And Kay said she actually feels something spiritual in the grocery aisles.

“Coming here is almost like going to church,’’ she said, “because of the way people treat one another.’’

Michael Paulson can be reached at