Inside the church’s massive COVID-19 relief effort

SALT LAKE CITY — Over the past four months, while 50 million Americans filed new jobless claims, Deseret Transportation trucks have crisscrossed the United States carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of food each week from Latter-day Saint storehouses to a vast array of organizations feeding the needy.

The far-flung effort to help America’s food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic is now the biggest humanitarian project in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its leaders said.

Beginning in mid-March, the church began to roll an additional 15 trucks a week out of its Bishops’ Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City. Over 16 weeks, the church has dispatched 240 truckloads beyond its normal capacity. Each truck carries 40,000 pounds of food, enough to feed 1,400 people for a week, according to Bishop Gérald Caussé, the Presiding Bishop of the church.

The trucks have rolled out of Utah to points up and down the eastern seaboard, from New Hampshire to Tennessee and Florida, and across the breadth of the country to Oregon, Washington and the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, according to a review of dozens of news reports.

The food relief is a single part of a global effort by the church to provide relief during the pandemic. The church now has provided pandemic-related aid through more than 630 projects in over 130 countries, Bishop Caussé said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has now become the largest-ever humanitarian project of the church,” President Russell M. Nelson told the Church News. “Any way you want to measure it, this is now the largest.”

In April, as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spread across the United States and caused a significant portion of the economy to shut down and grocery stores donated less to food pantries because their own shelves were bare, the church donated $5.5 million to five major American relief organizations.

The food donations have helped keep the doors open at many food banks.

For example, the Meal Barrel Project Food Pantry in Sheffield, Kentucky, was in crisis in April because the pandemic had created twin pressures — donations were down and demand was up.

“These truck loads from the Church of Jesus Christ have been a tremendous blessing, and it will extend our business of operation for at least another quarter,” the pantry’s director, Penny Freeman, told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

“If we had not received these in such a timely manner, we were seriously contemplating closing our doors. We are grateful for the generous donations the church has given us and for the impact it will have in sustaining the needs of our community.”

Pallets of food from the Bishops’ Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City are removed from a Deseret Transportation truck in Tohatchi, New Mexico, on Thursday, April 2, 2020. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has sent 240 additional truckloads of food to food banks all over the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.The Church of Jesus Christ

The church is not releasing dollar figures for its donations of food around the country or its hundreds of other projects worldwide, but some idea of the scope emerges from stories published around the country.

In Evansville, Indiana, the Tri-State Food Bank had seen its donations dry up.

“The grocery stores are giving less to us because they have less to give,” Tri-State Food Bank executive director Glenn Roberts told 14news.com. “They’re taking all those staple items. We’re not doing food drives right now. It’s not safe to do them, so we are forced to purchase more food right now. We purchase in bulk and those prices are going up.”

Then a Deseret Transportation truck arrived. The news outlet said the truck pulled a 53-foot trailer filled with nearly $45,000 worth of food and other commodities; one truck meeting one need, repeated 240 times.

Two of the larger previous relief projects in church history included giving $11 million for famine relief in Africa and the Middle East and donating $10 million for the construction of housing for the homeless in Salt Lake City. Both of those projects were announced in 2017.

“Where does all that money come from? Mostly from our members,” President Nelson said in a recent video published by the Church News in which he talked about the pandemic relief effort. “Their voluntary fast offerings have actually increased, and their voluntary contributions to our humanitarian funds have increased greatly.”

Those contributions have funded donations by the church to dozens of organizations, like to the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville, Florida, and the Manna Café in Clarksville, Tennessee. Spokespersons expressed gratitude for the deliveries.

“Thousands of people who never needed to depend on assistance before are now turning to the food bank for help,” Chattanooga Area Food Bank spokeswoman Laura Kirkpatrick told the Chattanoogan. “That’s in addition to the 1 in 8 people in southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia — including 1 in 5 children — who didn’t have enough to eat before the pandemic and tornadoes struck our area.”

Food requests fueled by pandemic-related job losses jumped 20% in March, representing 359 new families visiting the Community Food Basket in Idaho Falls, incoming executive director Ariel Jackson told a local news outlet.

“When people come in, we’ll ask them what their income is, and they’ll say, ‘Well, as of yesterday, it’s zero.’ We’re seeing a lot of people that thought they’d never have to come see us,” Jackson said.

Vehicles snake around the parking lot of a chapel belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pick up food from the Utah Food Bank in Taylorsville on Monday, April 13, 2020. The line continues on the street. The Utah Food Bank estimates it provided food to around 400 families at this location.Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Latter-day Saint Charities ramped up production at its canneries and food processing plants early in the COVID-19 crisis in preparation for the effort to send out the 15 additional weekly trucks from Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, its normal deliveries to food banks have continued to roll out of its 100 or so bishops’ storehouses around the country.

Bishop Caussé said the effort is part of the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“I believe that for every disciple of Jesus Christ this is part of our DNA, that we go and find those that are in need and try to help them, whether it is in our own community or far away in other countries. This is really at the center of our religion,” he said in a video released Tuesday.

Eight trucks delivered 160 tons of food to Muslim-run food banks in Maryland and Pennsylvania by mid-April. The project was spearheaded in part by Michael Brady, president of the church’s Baltimore Stake.

“Mike called me and asked how much food I needed and I said 1,500 pounds,” said Imam Earl El-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore. “Mike called back and told me there were 40,000 pounds on the way.”

El-Amin directed the delivery to the Langston Hughes Community Center in Baltimore. The donation included peanut butter, applesauce, beans, flour, sugar, spaghetti and milk powder as well as cleaning supplies and toilet paper.

“I met Mike a few years ago and we’ve worked on several initiatives. People ask, ‘What’s the connection?’ The connection is the Creator,” El-Amin said. “The connection will always be the Creator.”