Debbie Hatt does not hesitate a second when asked why so many people in Carbon County received food stamps last year.
"We have a one-horse economy," said Hatt, executive director of the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments. "If you're not lucky enough to have a government job or work in the mines, the only thing left is a minimum-wage job."
Carbon County, where 14 percent of residents received help buying food in 2010, is not the only rural county in the state where poverty, unemployment and underemployment and a young or aging population create a struggle with hunger. Of 11 counties where at least 10 percent of residents received food stamps last year, all but one Salt Lake County were rural.
"If you look at the increase in numbers, it is not an urban phenomenon," said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. "It is statewide, and folks in rural communities have a harder time because there are fewer resources."
The numbers are astonishing in some parts of the state, say anti-hunger experts. In San Juan County, for example, one in four residents received food stamps.
"It is alarming to hear how high it is in San Juan County," said Bill Tippets, anti-hunger director at Crossroads Urban Center.
But consider Grand and Iron counties, where just under one in every eight residents needed food stamps last year to survive. Both counties contended with high unemployment, at nearly 11 percent in Grand County and nearly 10 percent in Iron County, well above Utah's rate of 7.7 percent.
The two counties also illustrate another telling characteristic of Utah's food stamp usage. One has an aging population, while the other has one of Utah's youngest: the median age in Grand County is 39.2, third oldest in Utah; it is 25.8 in Iron County, the third youngest in the state. According to Community Action Partnership of Utah, the poverty rate in Iron County last year was 19 percent overall and a staggering 24 percent for children.
Community Action operates a food pantry in Beryl, a small community about 37 miles west of Cedar City, in Iron County. "They don't even have a grocery store," said Drew Martinez, a policy analyst at Community Action Partnership of Utah. "This is literally a town that is depending on a food bank for its food source. It shows what these realities look like."
Older Utahns are being pinched between stalled Social Security incomes and rising costs of prescription medicine, food and gas which particularly hurts residents of rural areas who must travel for specialized health care. Jody Ellis, who directs the RSVP program for senior citizens in Grand County, said many folks who come for lunch at the Grand Center four days a week are on food stamps.
"It gets them all directions," Ellis said.
Food banks, which allow clients to visit just once a month, fill the gap when food stamps don't stretch far enough. The average food stamp allotment per person in Utah last year was $123.58 a month.
At the Grand County Food Bank in Moab, manager Rod McNeely said senior citizens comprise a large segment of the pantry's clientele. But there is another factor at play in Grand County: a seasonal economy that is heavily dependent on summer tourism. Many businesses shut down completely during the winter.
"In the winter, there are no jobs because everyone works tourism," McNeely said. "Everyone lives off unemployment and food stamps, if they need it, and the food bank, if they need it."
Democratic state Rep. Christine Watkins, whose district covers San Juan, most of Carbon and parts of Emery and Grand counties, said even minimum-wage jobs are at a premium. The minimum wage currently $7.25 an hour, or $15,080 a year for a full-time employee brings in just $50 more than the 2010 federal poverty line of $15,030 for a single parent with one child. But most minimum-wage jobs are part time and don't offer benefits.
Add in nonexistent public transportation and lack of day care for working parents and Hatt says frankly: "This is not the place to be poor."
Watkins said the state is trying to assist rural areas with business supports and other measures.
"But it's an age-old problem of equity," she said. "You'd have to spend more time and more resources in the smaller populated areas to help. ... We need housing that is affordable, jobs to pay us a little bit more. I don't know how to legislate that."
Hunger risk high in rural Utah
The number of Utahns participating in the federal food stamp program increased 118 percent between June 2007 and June 2011. The state's food stamp caseload in August reached an all-time high of 113,903 cases (which may include more than one person). Here is where food stamp participation is highest in Utah, based on individual recipients as a percentage of county population:
San Juan County • 26 percent
Carbon County • 14 percent
Grand County • 13 percent
Iron County • 13 percent
Beaver, Duchesne, Juab, Millard, Piute, Salt Lake and Sanpete • 10 percent
Source: U.S Census, Utah Department of Workforce Services