Global church welfare program focuses on service, self-reliance
The year was 1936 and many in the United States, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were struggling amid the Great Depression.
“There was obviously a great need,” said Gordon Carmen, the director of production and distribution in the church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Services department. “Many, many people were unemployed. The economy was in trouble.”
Members of stakes in Salt Lake City wondered what they could do to help. With stake presidents’ input, the church organized its welfare program locally under the direction of then-President Heber J. Grant.
“It kind of blossomed and it grew over time that we wanted every stake really to have a welfare project — a bishops’ storehouse, a farm, a cannery, something like that that they could participate in the welfare program,” Carmen said.
The program now serves people of all faiths across the world, aiming to care for those in need while promoting also self-reliance.
The subsequent years saw the advent of bishops’ storehouses, Welfare Square and Deseret Industries in Salt Lake City. The church later began operating other welfare facilities, including the Deseret Mill and Pasta Plant, as well as other processing plants throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The welfare program now includes everything from dairies to gardens, canning and distributing many thousands of cases of vegetables each year through the bishops’ storehouse system, according to Carmen. Agreements with local grocery stores help where there aren’t bishops’ storehouses.
“My stake, when I was a young man growing up, we had a cattle ranch, out in Fairfield, Utah,” Carmen said. “That still exists as part of a larger cattle ranch that we operate today, and it’s part of our Nephi livestock project.”
Stakes’ individual projects helped the program grow immensely and remain part of the welfare program today.
“We’re hoping that if the stake doesn’t have a welfare project that the members of that stake can and are involved in helping those in need in other ways, a humanitarian effort of some sort that could be done locally, supporting a local charity, something like that,” Carmen said.
The church’s Welfare Square in Salt Lake City is home to a bishops’ storehouse, cannery, dairy facility, Deseret Industries store, employment center, home storage center and grain storage facility, according to Carmen.
The grain silos memorialize the efforts of Relief Society sisters who gathered and saved wheat beginning in the 1870s and through much of the 20th century, according to Samantha Butterworth, the director of content and messaging for Welfare and Self-Reliance Services.
“Among many charitable efforts, the Relief Society was able to donate wheat to survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake,” Butterworth said in an email. “They were also able to sell some of the wheat, using the proceeds to fund maternity care, child welfare, and general health care for Church members.”
Welfare Square welcomes visitors from around the world — from U.S. presidents to foreign dignitaries. For Carmen, the visit from President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s stands out best in his memories.
“I think that really maybe brought a light that hadn’t been there before on what the church does as far as helping those in need, and maybe, hopefully, even creating a pattern for other organizations to do the same,” Carmen said. “We’ve got dignitaries from many, many countries, which I think has helped shine a light on what the church does internationally.”
Recent tours have included visitors from Ethiopia and Sudan, leaders of other aid organizations like the World Food Programme and global faith leaders like the secretary general of the Muslim World League, according to Butterworth.
“In addition to world leaders and global humanitarian partners, we love to offer tours especially to youth groups and young adults, who are so interested (to) know more about how they can help those in need in their communities and around the world,” Butterworth said.
The welfare program has expanded over time to include family, self-reliance and immigrant services as well as Latter-day Saint Charities.
“Through Latter-day Saint Charities, the Church’s humanitarian aid program, the Church works with global partners to purchase and distribute commodities to people in need around the world,” Butterworth said.
The church operates a food supply system in the U.S. and Canada to “produce, process, and distribute food to Church members and others,” according to David Park, manager of planning and operations support in the Production and Distribution Division of Welfare and Self-Reliance Services.
“In response to natural disasters, this system can respond to immediate needs with food, water, and supplies,” Park said in an email. “It also can partner with other humanitarian organizations in reaching out to those in need.”
Park said food supply systems have been significantly impacted during the coronavirus pandemic, but the church has been able to use its food reserves to continue filling bishops’ orders for members in need without any disruption of services.
“In addition to this activity, the Church was able to provide hundreds of truckloads of food to our humanitarian partners,” Park said.
Donations increased from 16 million pounds of supplies to 32 million pounds from 2019 to 2020, according to Park.
“With direction from the Presiding Bishopric, in recent years the Church has dramatically increased the donation of food and supplies to humanitarian partners,” Park said.
The welfare program aims to teach self-reliance as it serves those in need. Church leaders encourage members to be prepared and have a plan to help them navigate challenges that might arise, from natural disasters to changes in employment, according to Butterworth.
“Self-reliance is about planning and preparing in a way that allows us to use our agency to its fullest when we are faced with a challenge,” Butterworth said.
The church offers self-reliance courses on emotional resilience, personal finances, how to start and grow a business, education for better work, and getting a job, according to Carmen.
“When members find themselves in need, local leaders work closely with them to understand their needs, understand what family, community, and Church resources they have available to them, and to help them develop a self-reliance plan,” Butterworth said.
The key to the church’s welfare program lies in its people, according to Butterworth.
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“Our baptismal covenant teaches us to care for one another and those in need,” Butterworth said.