The can of beans in your pantry could save a family

Story and photo by KOTRYNA LIEPINYTE

More than 21,833.

That’s the number of people who reported their income levels as below the poverty line from the 133,656 people who live in West Valley City.

West Valley City has a rate of poverty that is higher than in other Utah cities. “I have seen families with little kids go to bed hungry,” says resident Omar Reyes, shaking his head, “It’s wild.”

Although Reyes himself doesn’t face the issue firsthand, others do. Reyes lived next to a struggling community and researched the issues. Poverty does not necessarily connote starvation, however. Often times, poverty in the United States leads to malnutrition that  leads to higher risk of disease.

The diseases tend to be foreign to us, which then require doctor’s assistance. However, the families who deal with these illnesses don’t have the financial aid for healthcare, either. Unfortunately, these families choose to suffer in silence, compromising their life instead of facing debt they may be unable to repay.

Poverty also does not have one face. It can be seen in the most inconspicuous places, even right in front of your eyes. Poverty is overlooked in the United States because of the set stereotypes placed upon it. It’s a common misconception that a person living under the poverty line must look homeless and starving.

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Edwardo Hurtado, a student at the University of Utah, stocking up on some Otter Pops to distribute to the food banks.

Edwardo Hurtado, a student at the University of Utah, debunks this stereotype. “It’s incredibly frustrating when people think you have to look poor,” he says. “These people don’t look poor. These people just can’t afford good groceries. They can’t afford their bills and they can’t afford their healthcare.”

Hurtado stresses the importance of food drives in the community. “It’s the easiest way to help out,” he states. “Just bring cans of food.” The Utah Food Bank accepts donations year-round at most Harmon’s locations. You can also donate money directly to the food bank on the website.

Having done food drives in areas of South America, Hurtado hopes to bring the same success from the South American drives to the local communities here. “We helped a lot of families down there,” Hurtado says, “and we’re just hoping to bring the same gusto here.”

Hurtado works closely with the food drives in West Valley City, including Utah Community Action and the Community Action Program food pantry. He volunteers his time serving the residents and helps prepare emergency packets. For information on how to volunteer, call (801) 972-6661.

Gabriel Alfaro, a resident in West Valley City, thinks back on the time his family was below the poverty line. “You adapt,” he begins in his response email, “but it’s terrifying. The worst part is not knowing how long you’ll be in that grey area.”

Alfaro also helps with food drives when he can. Alfaro and his family often make care packages for their neighbors who are still living in poverty. “We know what it’s like to go to bed without food,” he writes. “And now that we don’t, we want to help our friends who still do.”

The care packages typically consist of nonperishable food items along with blankets and socks. Alfaro’s family makes and distributes about five care packages a week, first to families whom they know and then to strangers. They knock on doors and leave the packages in mailboxes or on front porches.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2015 that the racial segregation around the poverty line was huge. White people below the poverty line live on the east side of the city, while minorities below the poverty line live on the west side. On the east side, 16.2 percent of those residents live below the poverty line and 32.5 percent of that poor population are minorities.

On the west side, 17.1 percent of the population is poor and 68.8 percent of that population are minorities. While the poverty rate has gone down over the years, the minority rate has increased.

“Minority is the majority in West Valley, and it’s just going to keep growing,” Alfaro says. “A big chunk of those guys live off of food stamps.”

RoadSnacks compiled a list of the top-10 poorest places in Utah for 2019, and while West Valley City dodged the list, the feeling of fear still hovers. “I couldn’t imagine living in this place of limbo where you don’t know if you’re going to get dinner or not,” Reyes says.

Hurtado’s call to action is simply looking at your pantry. “Chances are, you probably have food in there that you haven’t eaten, and don’t plan to,” he says. “When you look at that food, imagine how stoked a starving family would be to have it? Put it in your car and next time you’re at Harmons, drop it off. And hey, you just fed a family.”