OGDEN -- Diane Craker chose carefully from the Ramen noodle selection, the cracker selection and the frozen meats display at the Joyce Hansen Hall Food Bank, all neatly arranged and laid out for ease of choice.
"I just started coming back, because I've got an extra granddaughter," said Craker as she wheeled her shopping cart through Catholic Community Services' warehouse-style food bank. Her basket was already half loaded with juice, flour and pears, and there were still potatoes, dairy and even laundry soap all to pick from.
Craker was first of nearly 100 clients to use the food bank's new "client selection" system of food distribution last week. Instead of walking in and being handed a large bag of food that the staff assembles, clients get a smaller bag of basics and then get to pick from other goods on the shelves.
Catholic Community Services Director Marcie Valdez suddenly found herself acting more like a grocery store manager on opening day. Clients pushed shopping carts, pondered selections and chose. A little girl, maybe 2 years old, tried to help her mom push the cart.
Valdez bustled around, making sure jars and bags were neatly stacked to the edges of shelves and tables and helping clients with heavier boxes and bags.
That "normal shopping experience" is what Valdez said she is looking for.
"Yesterday we had a volunteer at the meat table, and he said to a client, 'How many are you shopping for today?' " she said. "And that's so good -- they really are shopping."
There are more than 100 food banks in Utah, but only 19 let the clients choose their own food. Valdez said the Joyce Hansen Hall Food Bank, as the largest in Utah, had to make the switch for economic and practical reasons, not just to give clients a shopping experience.
The biggest benefit is that it eliminates waste. Before, clients got what they got in food packs that her volunteers assembled. She pointed to a lump of frozen tripe on the meat table.
"Someone will love that," she said, but not everyone. Tripe -- the lining of a cow's stomach -- is used to make menudo.
Putting food bags together was backbreaking work for her staff, she said. This way, volunteers stand behind tables and help people choose.
Glenda Lingo wheeled through in an electric wheelchair, helped by volunteer Tyler Thomas. She stopped at the meat table manned by Jerry DeBartolo, a retired small farmer from Plain City who spends his winters volunteering at the food bank.
Lingo pondered the frozen slabs of beef, pork, sausage and chicken, which the food bank gets from local markets when the meat reaches its sell-by date. She finally took a tray of pork steaks.
"I don't know what I'd do if it wasn't for them," she said of the food bank staff, and said she really liked picking her own items.
"Sometimes you get stuff you don't use and don't want," she said.
After DeBartolo's meat counter, Lingo got her choice of a sack of potatoes or four jicama, which was described on the label as a "Mexican potato" and is eaten sliced like potato chips. She took the potatoes but the man behind her, who spoke mostly Spanish, took the jicamas with a big grin.
Demand for food at the bank is up because of the slow economy.
Valdez said she serves about 2,000 people a month, with a typical day being about 100 clients. Normally she distributes about 150,000 pounds of food a month, but November and December are holiday months, when she also tries to give out holiday food baskets, so she's really hoping for more donations.
To help, food donations have increased. As she talked, a worker shifted into place a huge pallet load of pears donated by the WalMart distribution center in Box Elder County. A table was loaded with U.S. Department of Agriculture dried figs, all chopped into bits. A nearby table groaned under a load of various brands of peanut butter.
But it goes fast. A typical food basket used to be enough for 10 days; now it's more like six or seven, because Valdez has to make her own supplies last.
"The Food Bank in Salt Lake (which is the state's main warehouse for other food banks) already told us they're not going to have enough turkeys for both Christmas and Thanksgiving," she said. "Tell your business and neighborhoods to have food drives. Maybe instead of neighbor gifts, collect food."
Higher prices all around are hurting a lot of people, she said.
"The other day we had a man here in his 70s, and he was in tears. He said he'd already gotten his food for the month, but he had no food in the house. He and his wife had a can of beans for dinner the night before. They live on Social Security and after rent, lights, heat and utilities, they had $65 left over for everything else.
"We gave him an extra bag and made sure he had resources" at other charities.