The demand on the welfare system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has risen significantly, due to the downturn in the U.S. economy. But according to Dennis Lifferth, Church director of Welfare Services, the system is well-equipped to handle the increasing needs of individuals encountering financial, unemployment or other difficulties.

The system is supported by the generous “fast offering” donations of 13 million Church members throughout the world. Mormons fast, or skip two meals each month, and give the money they would have spent on the food (and often much more) to their local bishop. The money they give is called a “fast offering.” The bishop then uses those funds to help members of his congregation, and others, who are in need.

But it is not a handout. The bishop gives the needy individual or family assignments to work for the assistance they receive. The work might include cleaning a church building or using skills to help someone else in need.  Fulfilling these assignments helps those receiving assistance to maintain their dignity and self-respect and provides a way for them to give back.

Jim Goodrich is the manager of Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, a facility that includes a cannery, a milk-processing plant, a bishops’ storehouse, a thrift store, an employment center and silos where wheat and other grains are stored.

He has seen firsthand how the welfare program changes people’s lives. “Welfare Square gives people hope and a place where they can feel good about themselves and others and it opens up opportunities for people to have a better future,” says Goodrich.

According to Goodrich, the Church welfare system has three purposes: To care for the poor and needy, to help people become self reliant and to create opportunities for service. The Church has established welfare centers and “bishops’ storehouses” to facilitate the most basic needs.

It is a scriptural principle that each bishop should have a “storehouse” available to him from which to draw resources to help the poor and needy. There are 138 bishops’ storehouses around the world in areas where there is a significant concentration of Church members. These storehouses, funded by the donations of individual members of the Church, meet the needs of many individual congregations. In areas where a bishop’s storehouse is not available, bishops may use the funds collected form fast offerings to purchase food and other needed commodities for individuals in need.

One of the largest storehouses is located at Welfare Square in Salt Lake City.   While larger than some others, it functions in the same fashion.  A bishop gives an individual or family in need an “order” for food after he meets with them to discuss their needs and what they can do to provide assistance in return for the commodities they receive. They then take the order to the storehouse, and volunteers help the individual obtain the goods needed. As part of the process, the bishop works with the member on a plan to return to full self-reliance.

Many of the products available at the storehouse are produced right on Welfare Square or at other Church-owned facilities. Church member volunteers provide much of the labor to produce those goods. Frequently in Sunday Church meetings a leader will announce the need for members to volunteer their time to help produce goods for the bishops’ storehouse that will be used to help the poor. The volunteer labor needs for Welfare Square are planned a year in advance so members can make arrangements to participate as requested.

Volunteers need no prior training before they arrive to serve. They receive no reward other than knowing that the can of jam they’re bottling or the loaf of bread they package will end up in the empty pantry of a family in need and that their unpaid service makes that possible.

Eli Anderle, a teenager from Salt Lake City, was volunteering at the bishops’ storehouse for the first time, packaging fresh loaves of bread in plastic bags. “It’s kind of cool to find out where (the food) is going,” Anderle said. “You’re helping other people who can’t provide for themselves.”

A 13-year-old wrote an anonymous letter thanking volunteers for the help they provided to his family when it was in need:

I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the help you give to those in need. We have been the recipients of your graciousness. My mother told my family that the food came from angels, those kind workers at the bishops’ storehouse, helping others. I am grateful for people like you who make others’ burdens light.

“Our system thrives on volunteerism,” says Jim Goodrich. “People come often to visit Welfare Square and ask how we get people to volunteer.” Goodrich explains that Mormons volunteer and are willing to serve others because of the commitment they’ve made with God to help others. Each year, hundreds of thousands of days of labor are donated to Church welfare facilities.