ST. GEORGE — The scent inside Dixie Center St. George late Friday afternoon was the unmistakable aroma of potatoes, onions and other produce. But there was another scent in the air: One of both a community coming together and a community in need of help.
A constant river of around 100 cars long streamed into the convention center for a free food giveaway provided by farmers – local and statewide – through the Farmers Feeding Utah campaign. In all, a total of 1,200 families were expected to receive several bags of fresh goods that included potatoes, apples, beef, milk, cheese, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes and other produce.
To keep it a safe event, residents were asked to stay in their cars with their rear doors open, as volunteers placed bags of food into the vehicles.
The long line of cars provided some of the more conclusive evidence of the pandemic’s economic toll locally. The line was already stretching more than three city blocks before the event’s start at 5 p.m., with mostly those receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Recently-installed St. George Mayor Michele Randall was on hand, watching the steady stream of vehicles coming in. Randall said she was both gratified to see the dozens of local volunteers coming together to help people in their community, yet also downhearted to see all of those locally in need.
“It makes your heart swell to see people love to help others. We lose that with social media nowadays, but if we get out and look around and see, you’ll see people helping their neighbors. Look, the room’s full of volunteers. So you still have that volunteer spirit,” Randall said, adding that she wasn’t surprised to see so many local people show up needing food.
“Our food bank has been overwhelmed. We’re a service community, We have a lot of hotels and restaurants and a lot of people have been hurt from this pandemic. And so the need doesn’t surprise me. It hurts that there is that big of a need. I just hope we’re over it soon and back to normal. That’s what we all want.”
The Farmers Feeding Utah campaign started at the beginning of the pandemic in March as a grassroots effort among farmers who were without customers and having to discard crops and milk.
“Our farmers and ranchers lost their markets, and farmers were dumping their milk out on the fields,” Clayton Beckstead, executive director of Farmers Feeding Utah, said. “And then you get you go to the grocery stores and there’s no milk until the grocery store shelves are empty. So we knew there was a need.”
Beckstead, a farmer himself in Spanish Fork, said Farmers Feeding Utah has conducted similar events statewide, but admitted he was surprised at the large number of people seeking help in Southern Utah, which he compared to the kind of lines he saw at a similar event on the Navajo Reservation.
But for Beckstead, it was the younger faces that were the toughest to watch.
“One of the things that hits me personally is when you see children come through and to know that we’re feeling the need of that child, you know that he’ll have a full belly tonight … that to me is what keeps you going.”
Besides the local families in need, the Farmers Feeding Utah effort has also provided a helping hand to the farmers that provide the food, giving them a customer in a time when there have been fewer customers because of the pandemic. The group pays farmers for the food that may have otherwise gone unbought.
Beckstead said one example was a pecan farm in Hurricane.
“He’s lost all of his market. So we come in and bought all this and so people are getting pecans here,” Beckstead said. “We’re helping the farmers and ranchers and also helping hungry people. So it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Stephen Lisonbee was at the event as a volunteer from LaVerkin, bringing his family to help hand out the bags of food to the passing cars. He also happens to be Gov. Spencer Cox’s senior advisor for rural affairs and said his takeaway was the volunteer effort that he said showed Southern Utahns care for each other.
“It’s just a really great experience to give service and everybody here is more than excited. There’s more volunteers here than they’ve ever had an event that tells you something about Washington County,” Lisonbee said. “People here want to serve, want to help. And that’s really cool.”
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