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Mormons stash away for social safety net

By Mary Kozelka

Rock Center

In a nondescript industrial park in Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains a vast 500,000 sq. ft. warehouse with enough goods to rival your local Costco. From wheelchairs and toilet paper to sugar and bread, The Utah Bishops’ Central Storehouse is stocked.

Despite the prevalence of Mormon business success stories in the media -- most notably Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- one quarter of all U.S. Mormon households earn $30,000 a year or less according to Pew Research Center.

The storehouse, along with 110 similar facilities spread across the country, is part of the Mormon effort to help those in need, Mormon and non-Mormon alike.

“We'll help anyone at any time as long as we're able to do so and have those resources available to do so,” said Rick Foster, director of the church’s welfare operations, adding that there is no pressure to convert, but you do have to meet with your local congregation’s bishop, who will allow access to the store provided there is a need for assistance. The supplies are also available to help victims of natural disasters anywhere in the world.

While other religious and secular charities provide similar assistance to the world’s needy, the Mormon effort stands out in its organized self-sufficiency.

The storehouse and other facets of the Mormon welfare system, such as thrift stores, are primarily funded by Mormons who fast one Sunday every month for two consecutive meals, and then donate the money they would have spent on food to the church.

While medical supplies and other provisions are purchased by the church for the warehouse, almost all the food is sourced and produced by the Mormon community for charity. Fruit is harvested from Mormon orchards, vegetables are brought in from local Mormon farms, and even turkey and beef products found in the frozen section of the storehouse are brought in from Mormon ranches.

Not far from the Bishops’ Central Storehouse, in a place called Welfare Square, NBC’s Harry Smith watched Mormon volunteers bake bread, make cheese and bottle honey. These products are then packaged and most of them are donated to charity.

Thanks to these efforts, the storehouses hold enough supplies to support the church’s welfare efforts for an entire year.

Food and other supplies are transferred from the 110 regional storehouses to 142 grocery store-like setups across the country and around the world.  No cash is accepted at these stores, but volunteer work is expected in return when those who received help are able to function independently again. The needy bring only their bishop-approved list and start shopping. Each store is staffed by volunteers.

“Some people come and it could be the worst day of their life.

They're really down.  They've lost their job, their children are hungry. If they come and don't say one word, that's OK. As long as we didn't make them feel bad about coming for assistance,” said Sue Moore, who volunteers at Bishop Storehouse in Welfare Square in Salt Lake City.

Moore’s husband, Bob, reminisced about a homeless woman who came in search of food to feed her young children. The 6-year-old daughter looked at the food in disbelief and asked her mother: “Is this food for us?” He said such heartbreaking memories reinforce his belief in the cause.

“Life isn’t about getting something for nothing,” Bob Moore said.

Kirk Green, leader of a suburban Mormon congregation near Salt Lake City, agrees: “It's a commitment and a belief to follow Christ in the way that he lived his life. And one of the biggest ways he lived his life was taking care of the poor, those who are less fortunate, those who didn't have all the breaks in life.”

Editor's Note: Rock Center's in-depth look at the Mormon faith, 'Mormon in America,' airs Thursday, Aug. 23 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.