Bridgeton - It's an obscure gauge of the economy's direction, tied to food assistance and stockpiling by members the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's been called the Mormon Index, and it's rising.
It's rising at a nondescript church-owned warehouse situated among other nondescript warehouses (Dynamic Fastener, Southwest Stainless, Meridian Waste Services) in an industrial park here, not far from the airport.
The warehouse, called the Bishop's Storehouse, is a food cannery and distribution center that serves two practical purposes. It allows the church to help feed members who are struggling financially, and it allows all church members to can dry goods for long-term storage in their homes in case of disaster.
For Mormons, heeding their church leaders' call to stockpile food fills a psychological need to be prepared for calamities. And when Mormons build up those stockpiles, some economists prick up their ears.
Likewise, when activity at the country's 109 Bishop's Storehouses increases, some economists see a growing anxiety about safety and sustenance across the broader American population.
James Goodrich, who runs the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints welfare program in Salt Lake City, said there was "no question that the economy has had an impact on our storehouses systemwide."
Orders at the Bridgeton warehouse have doubled in the past six months, according to its managers, and they tripled around the holidays.
"Recently it's been almost a mayhem or pandemonium situation," said Bob Armstrong, a longtime volunteer at the facility.
Economists are interested in the dynamic Armstrong is describing. Many read the tiniest of tea leaves for hints of financial direction - coal futures in central Appalachia, copper prices, container counts in the Port of Los Angeles.
Daniel Gross, author of "Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great For The Economy," who has written about the above arcane metrics in his column for Slate, said the Mormon Index and similar boutique economic clues are often more reliable than big-gun barometers, such as housing starts and the unemployment rate.
"Some of the more obscure indicators actually tell you something real because they're not subject to manipulation," Gross said. "What they're measuring is unambiguous, and in this case, these numbers are measuring stress in the Mormon community."
The church's storehouses are frequently attached to canneries, called Family Home Storage Centers, where Mormons (and their non-Mormon guests) buy and can their own dry goods - like wheat, rice, powdered milk, sugar and oats.
"We believe temporal welfare is important to how we live as Christians," said Kent Holt, president of the church's O'Fallon, Ill., stake, one of four local geographical subdivisions, each of which includes about 10 congregations. "The church has a focus on helping its members be self-reliant and maintain their independence."
In the wake of the Great Depression, church leaders said they received a revelation from God that Mormons should keep a long-term supply (currently one year) of essential food staples, and a three-month, rotating supply of food eaten more frequently.
In a 1974 speech about the revelation, Ezra Benson, who later became the church's president, cited Mormon scripture as the basis for the theology behind preparing for the unknown.
In the Doctrine and Covenants, God tells his people, "Prepare ye, prepare ye for that which is to come ... I, the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth."
Those possible calamities, according to Benson, included references in biblical and Mormon literature to "a great hailstorm sent forth to destroy the crops of the earth," "an overflowing scourge; for a desolating sickness shall cover the land" and "famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes."
Benson left no doubt about the importance of being prepared.
"The revelation to store food may be as essential to our temporal salvation today as boarding the ark was to the people in the days of Noah," he said.
A SENSE OF SECURITY
Winona and Kevin Black began stocking their shelves a couple of years after their 1985 wedding. When they moved to St. Louis, in 1990, they had two small children and began their food storage in earnest. Kevin Black was a resident at Barnes Hospital at the time, and the family was spending $30 a week on food.
Today, with seven children, the Blacks have increased their food budget to $100 a week, and they've abided by the church's food-storage suggestions for two decades.
One of their daughter's twin mattresses was set up on boxes filled with cans of powdered milk, potato flakes and red beans. Shelves in an upstairs closet of their Crestwood house are balanced on the large No. 10 cans used in the church's cannery operation and filled with wheat.
In a separate storage room downstairs, more boxes of wheat, pasta, sugar and oats sit next to multiple jars of mayonnaise, boxes of soup mix, bags of popcorn and cans of refried beans.
Winona Black keeps a black marker in the room to help her keep track of the rotation of supplies.
"If you have three months' worth of food and for some reason you couldn't leave your house, or you lost your job, that's one thing you wouldn't have to think about right away," Winona Black said.
But practicality is only one incentive for the family.
"The reason we do it is because a man we believe is a prophet of God said we should," Winona Black said. "That's the bottom line on why have a whole year's supply of food."
The church funds the Bishop's Storehouse program through volunteer efforts and money it receives from donations known as fast offerings. One Sunday each month, members of the church eat only one meal and donate the money they would have used for the other two to the program.
The Bridgeton facility includes the storehouse, the cannery, an employment center and a family counseling center. Any church member may use any of the facilities. Many reserve time at the cannery through their congregations, often in groups of up to 20 to make the process more efficient. Joanna and Frank Soles, who manage the cannery, keep a calendar of reservations, and that calendar has stayed full in recent months.
Current prices to fill the No. 10 cans include 5.2 pounds of pinto beans for $5.05, 5.8 pounds of hard red wheat for $2.95 and 1.3 pounds of dried apple slices for $6.95 - all of which have a storage life of 30 years.
Once a month, two semi-truck loads of food pull up to the Bridgeton storehouse from Salt Lake City, where the church's central food warehouse is located. About 80 percent of the food at the storehouses comes from church-owned farms, orchards and processing plants.
Each Mormon congregation assembles a "welfare committee" which is responsible for identifying members who might be in need of temporary assistance - to get over a recent layoff or health problem, for instance.
When a member of that committee has visited the family in question and assessed its needs, the congregation's lay leader, called a bishop, signs an order for the food. The family then visits the Bishop's Storehouse and fills the order with the help of volunteers.
PLANS TO EXPAND
The main storeroom at the Bridgeton storehouse features three levels of pallets stacked 16 feet high and a roaming forklift. Plans are under way to knock down walls and expand the room by 2010 to accommodate the crowds.
Church leaders stress that whatever help struggling Mormons receive is temporary and aimed only to get them on their feet again. Each order is meant to last a family two weeks, at which point their bishop has to reauthorize another visit to the storehouse.
And while no money is exchanged, church members who benefit from the storehouse are expected to give back to the community in other ways - baby-sitting for another member of the congregation, fixing someone's leaky roof, cleaning the church - in order to preserve their sense of dignity.
For years, Iris and John Walter of Jerseyville have volunteered for the church's welfare programs and donated their fast offering to the Bishop's Storehouse program. But in November, John lost his job as an accountant, and the couple have seen the storehouse from the other side in recent months.
Last week, as John was changing into a suit to tape a mock interview as part of his job-search training at the facility's employment center, Iris gathered the week's fruit, eggs, cheese and milk.
"The prophet was inspired to have this for us," she said, "and it's wonderful to have it when you need it."