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Empty store shelves have become a defining image of the coronavirus pandemic. That's because as the virus hit the U.S., people started stocking up on food, supplies and lots of toilet paper. As many were scrambling to buy enough to last them weeks or months, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already had stockpiles in their basements, under the beds and in their closets. Sonja Hutson from member station KUER in Salt Lake City explains.
SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: Eleven-year-old Caitlin Cottam walks downstairs to her family's basement in their home outside Salt Lake City. She flicks on the light, revealing floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with food, paper towels and first-aid kits.
CAITLIN COTTAM: We have Jell-O and honey and lots of canned food, like soup.
HUTSON: Caitlin's mom, 42-year-old Emily Cottam, says they have enough food down there to last about a year. She grew up Mormon and learned the importance of self-reliance.
EMILY COTTAM: I've always heard church leaders say, we want you to have this food storage. It probably will never be used for a worldwide catastrophe but on an individual basis.
HUTSON: Emily Cottam and her husband's food supply started as a wedding gift from her parents.
COTTAM: We used it when my husband was in residency and his schooling and we had little kids running around. And we used that so we didn't have to take out more student loans just for food. So I guess the best thing was it gave us peace of mind.
HUTSON: Her husband is a dentist, and Emily Cottam says she's not worried about losing income right now. But her daughter Caitlin says as she watches shelves at the grocery store get cleaned out, she's happy there's extra food at home.
CAITLIN: It makes me feel more peaceful and not so stressed because I know that we have food, and we won't be hungry.
HUTSON: Food storage is part of a larger ethos of self-reliance in the church, says Matthew Bowman, a history professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies Mormonism. Back in the 1800s, Mormons were violently cast out of Missouri and Illinois.
MATTHEW BOWMAN: And the church very much, I think, felt burned by American culture generally. Brigham Young decided to leave the United States - meant to build their own society.
HUTSON: And they did that in the Great Basin, part of which would eventually become Utah.
BOWMAN: The leaders of the church wanted to encourage an independent and self-sufficient economy in the Great Basin, one that would not require importation of supplies from the outside world. And the storage was seen as a way to do that.
HUTSON: Keeping a food supply became an official recommendation during the Great Depression. It came at the same time as the church instituted its own welfare program, which gives food to church members who can't afford it. So while Mormons are encouraged to be self-reliant, Bowman says, they're also taught to help others.
BOWMAN: So every member of a congregation is assigned several other people in the congregation that they are responsible for keeping tabs on.
HUTSON: In the time of coronavirus, the Cottams are helping both Mormons and non-Mormons with the supplies they've stockpiled. They're delivering soap and toilet paper to their elderly neighbors who either don't want to go to the store or can't find the supplies they need there. Here's Caitlin and her younger sister Kendra.
CAITLIN: We made notes and put them on toilet paper and wipes. And then we went and put them on our neighbors' doorsteps. And...
KENDRA COTTAM: And then we rang the doorbell and ran away.
HUTSON: They hid nearby to watch their neighbors' reactions. The Cottams say they're going to keep dropping off supplies and replenishing their own food storage.
For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson in Salt Lake City.
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