SALT LAKE CITY — Bishop's Storehouse looks like any other grocery store at first glance: The shelves are neatly lined with canned goods and the smell of fresh bread wafts through the aisles.
But there are no cash registers. The fruits and vegetables, just-made cheeses and milk are free — a safety net for those in need provided by the 13 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We like to call it the best food money can't buy," said Jim Goodrich, who oversees the storehouse and other facilities on the church's 13-plus-acre Welfare Square.
Mormons may be among the country's best prepared to weather the current economic hard times. Since the Great Depression, church leaders have preached a doctrine of self-reliance and selflessness, calling on members to plan for their own future while tending to the needs of others.
"It's a critical component of our theology," said Bishop David Burton, a senior church administrator who oversees the faith's worldwide welfare and humanitarian services programs.
Year's supply of emergency food
Members are encouraged to squirrel away a few months' worth of living expenses and stock a one-year supply of emergency food. Church handouts, classes and a Web site describe how to prepare, store and cook with emergency food supplies so nothing goes to waste.
Each month, members skip two meals and give the money they would have spent on food to church welfare programs, paying for the commodities, clothing, job training and other services made available to the needy.
The church also works in partnership with other faith traditions and local social service agencies to share surplus commodities and support services.
Goodrich's Welfare Square is the heart of the program. Founded in the 1930s, the square is home to a cannery and milk- and cheese-processing facility; a 16 million-pound grain elevator; and a bakery, storehouse, thrift store and employment center, all of which are run mostly by volunteers serving church missions.
Over the years, the safety net has extended worldwide to include farms, orchards, dairies and cattle ranches that provide the raw material for the commodities harvested, processed and packaged at church facilities.
Each product carries the "Deseret" label — a Book of Mormon word that is a synonym for honeybee and a metaphor for the industriousness of church members.
"What we see today is the product of 60 years of inspired leadership and a lot of hard work," Burton said. "I can't tell you the cumulative investment, but it's minor in terms of the cumulative effort on the part of thousands and thousands."
Church members seek out their local congregation leader, called a bishop, to access the system. Bishops — there are 27,000 worldwide — also have a pool of cash to pay for housing, medical needs or keep the utilities on, although the church prefers to provide commodities first, Burton said.
Assistance comes with the expectation of reciprocal service, whether it's a few hours of volunteer work on the square stocking shelves or some other form of service.
Jennifer Williams was hesitant to accept help. Fresh out of college and in the middle of a difficult divorce, she was struggling to find a career that matched her skills — fluency in Russian and a political science education.
"One of the things that makes it so hard is that you think it's just for people who don't have a job, not for someone like me, working, middle-class and educated," said Williams, 29, now of Washington, D.C. "But, you know, needing help is OK."
Without money to buy a gallon of milk, she temporarily stocked her pantry with church commodities and used the training she got in an executive job search program to land a job with a defense contractor.
It's unclear how many individuals and families need church assistance each year. Church statistics from 2007 show some 210,000 people used employment centers and training to find jobs. But church officials declined to provide a demographic snapshot of the average welfare recipient, the amount of time most recipients use the programs and an average value for the commodities provided.
Without that information, it's difficult to assess the effect the church programs have on the community, said Glenn Bailey, director of Crossroads Urban Center, an advocacy and direct services agency for the poor in Salt Lake City that annually gets a share of church commodities for its own emergency food bank.
"I think they play a critical role, it's just that there's no way to tell the size of the gap they fill," Bailey said. "Obviously they are doing a lot of work and helping a lot of people who would go without or seek assistance elsewhere."
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