Along the shoulder of Washington Boulevard in Ogden on Friday, more cars than could be counted lined up as volunteers tore open boxes, packaged groceries and loaded them into trunks.

“Everybody watch out!” shouted Mike Larson as he used a forklift to move a pallet of food outside of his business, Advanced Armor Technology.

Over the last year, operations at Larson’s company have been anything but business as usual. Advanced Armor Technology sells protection gear to law enforcement officers and civilians. As police departments began seeing budget cuts last year, the company shut down temporarily and transformed into Tri-City Exchange — a food pantry where people give what they have and take what they need.

Now, what was meant to be a two-month project has become a permanent fixture working to solve hunger in the area. But it hasn’t stopped there.

Although it’s named for the tri-city area of North Ogden, Harrisville and Pleasant View, Tri-City Exchange has expanded to other parts of the state and the country. It currently operates locations in Hawaii, New York, California, Colorado and Price, Utah. And as people flocked to the North Ogden location on Friday, Tri-City Exchange held a pop-up food giveaway in American Fork.

“On days like this, we get a line 2 miles (long) — it’s chaos,” he said.

The steady stream of cars showed up in response to a post made Thursday evening on the exchange’s Facebook page advertising its giveaways. Within a few hours, Tri-City Exchange had distributed more than 180,000 pounds of food in just North Ogden, Larson said. During the same period of time, it gave 80,000 pounds in Price and 60,000 in American Fork.

According to Larson, the sustained operation of the exchange has relied on a philosophy of reducing hunger while minimizing waste. Some food pantries end up discarding donated food because they aren’t able to distribute it quickly enough.

At Tri-City Exchange, very little of what has been donated has gone unclaimed, Larson said. Over the last year, it has given away 9.5 million pounds of food and has thrown away less than 0.5% of what it has received.

“If I can show a company that it won’t get wasted, they’ll donate it,” Larson said. “But if they know it’s going in the garbage, there’s no point.”

That philosophy has nurtured trust between Larson and the numerous food suppliers, both local and throughout the country, he has partnered with to get food into the hands of the hungry. Among them, he said, are Associated Foods, U.S. Foods, Nicholas and more.

The exchange also uses that food to supply neighboring food pantries, as long as they will sign a pledge to reduce waste to 10% or less over the course of a year.

That model is being replicated at Tri-City Exchange’s locations throughout the country. Other companies and organizations have reached out to Larson, he said, asking him how they can do what he’s doing. Larson hopes more locations will pop up over the next year.

“It’s here forever, there’s no question,” Larson said. “We can’t stop; it’s helping so many people and it’s changing the way food is given out to people.”

The need for food has become especially pronounced in Weber County in the last year. According to a recent study from Weber State University and the Ogden Civic Action Network, approximately one in five children in Weber County were food insecure in 2020 — a more than 5% increase from 2018.

Larson worries that number will only get worse as government benefits meant to relieve economic troubles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are phased out. That’s why the exchange will remain open to everyone, he added.

On the Facebook post advertising the Friday giveaway, one commenter asked, “What verifications do you need?” Another responded, “You don’t need anything just drive up and they load it into your car.”

That is another cornerstone of the exchange — anyone who needs help gets it.

“A lot of food programs are income-based,” Larson said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a million-dollar home or a single-wide, if you lost your job, you can’t pay the bill, your kids are going to go without food or you’re not going to have a place to stay.”

During its year of operation, Tri-City Exchange has found more and more ways to get food to the people who need it. It partners with local police departments to connect domestic violence victims and other vulnerable people to food, and some Utah Transit Authority drivers have started loading up their buses with food, distributing it along the way, Larson said.

The number of pop-ups Tri-City Exchange holds have also gone up as it has set up shop in parking lots of local businesses, reaching people who don’t have the means to travel to its North Ogden location at 2067 N. Washington Blvd.

Aside from corporate donations, the exchange also relies on individual contributions, Larson said. It collects money to fund the shipping cost of food on Venmo and Cash App and depends on regular volunteers to keep things running.

Scott Wilson has worked at Tri-City Exchange since August. He said he got involved after checking out the exchange with his son, Harrisville Police Chief Mark Wilson, and realizing how much help Larson needed. When Wilson sees people who really need something and are willing to give back whatever they can, that makes all of the time spent worth it, he said. “All of us need a little help at some time or another.”

One recent experience came when an older woman offered up her stimulus check — which Tri-City Exchange turned down — to compensate for the help she has received from the exchange during the pandemic. Another woman hobbled down the street using a walker and offered a cup of pudding in exchange for groceries.

“She said, ‘I have this extra, it will help someone,’” Larson recollected. “That just breaks your heart, you know, to see everybody wants to help.”

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