Food insecurity haunts thousands of Las Vegans, but a network of charities is tackling the problem — with surprising efficiency
The end of the month is a busy time for a food pantry. The people in line have usually used up most of their supplemental food benefits — if they have them — meaning their cabinets and refrigerators are bare. But you won’t hear 65-year-old Margaret Coleman complaining about the wait at Lutheran Social Services of Nevada (LSSN): She knows that without this, she wouldn’t have food. “I make do with what I have and don’t complain about what I don’t have,” she says. “And I thank God for what I do have.”
Coleman is among the 280,000 people in Southern Nevada — one out of seven — who are estimated to be food insecure. “That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million meals overall that people are missing,” says Regis Whaley, the business support manager of Three Square Food Bank. “Food insecurity is when there is a lack of quantity of food or quality of food within a household. It’s not just being hungry, but also the stress of not knowing where the next meal is coming from.”
The food-insecure could be seniors on a fixed income, people with disabilities who can’t work, even working families that simply don’t earn enough — when times are hard, it’s usually a household’s food budget that can be adjusted, and people go without. “There isn’t just one single face of food insecurity,” says Rebecca Martin, whose family uses Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada’s food pantry. “I’m a disabled veteran. Yes, I get my disability, but it’s not enough to make ends meet sometimes. Whether you’re homeless or working a job 9 to 5, anyone at any time might need some help.”
The Department of Agriculture’s annual food insecurity report indicates that about one-fourth of food-insecure households are usually recurrent, but not chronic. On average, these households experienced food insecurity about seven months out of the year. Also a factor: food deserts, a term for areas that lack nutritious foods because there aren’t grocery stores readily accessible. “We find lower-income areas are populated more by convenience stores than actual grocery stores,” Whaley adds. “So you’ve got a limited quantity of food, but also the quality of food.”
According to Three Square, food insecurity is measured by a few factors, including household size, unemployment rates, poverty, median household income, and population. With that, it has found the five local ZIP codes with the highest rates of food insecurity are 89106, 89046, 89029, 89169, and 89101.
A common line of defense for people who are food insecure is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps low-income people and families buy groceries. According to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s goal is to reduce food insecurity to 6 percent and increase SNAP participation to 85 percent by 2018.
For the people who qualify, sometimes the money allotted isn’t enough. Kim Amato, the outreach and community liaison at Lutheran Social Services of Nevada, says she has seniors who only qualify for $20 a month. “What can you buy with that?” she asks.
While the government has its way of dealing with food insecurity, members of the community are on the front line, trying to fill the remaining need through food pantries, community meals, and resource centers. Last year, Three Square distributed 44 million pounds of food through its nearly 1,300 community partners, which includes churches, other nonprofits, apartment complexes with underserved populations, unemployment offices, and libraries. This also includes providing more than 200 schools with meals for low-income students.
The midday August sun isn’t kind, and reflects harshly off the pavement outside of the Clark County Library. The few trees are stingy with their shade, providing little comfort. Yet the people waiting for one of Three Square’s weekly produce giveaways are restless as they eye the bags of potatoes, watermelons, onions, and pears.
From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Tuesday, people call Three Square to place their names on the list to receive those items being passed out in front of the library. Those who come without calling are served afterward.
Angela Thomas has brought along two of her kids. She is a certified nursing assistant who moved to Las Vegas over the summer to be closer to her son, who was going to college in Arizona. “This was close enough that it wasn’t too close,” she says. She was sure she would get a job when she arrived. But after 30 days and with a rapidly depleting bank account, things are getting tighter. When she saw a flier for the giveaway, she put her name on the list. “This will definitely help,” she says. “Every little bit of assistance helps.”
The line moves slowly as people pick up items and put them into backpacks, plastic bags, or whatever improvised container they have come up with. About 150 people go through the line in the 45 minutes it’s open. This will be replicated many times around the valley throughout the week.
A variety of churches and social-service organizations, many of which rely on a mixture of food from Three Square and donations or canned good drives, have been helping to provide for those in need.
In the lobby of Lutheran Social Services of Nevada, people are waiting for their names to be called. The organization is open four days a week — Mondays and Fridays for the first 40 people, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays for seniors 60 or older. Clients select most of what they want on the computer, using the nonprofit’s DigiMart. Some 500-600 families come to the nonprofit each month. For the DigiMart food pantry, people who apply can receive between 100 and 500 points each month depending on the size of their household.
Coleman, in line at LSSN, says she moved to Las Vegas with her husband, a disabled veteran, last year. They are retired and on a fixed income, so they thought Las Vegas’ cost of living would help with their budget. When money got tight, it was either find a food pantry or go hungry. She heard of LSSN through word of mouth. “And I’ve been going ever since,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like a handout. The way it’s operated, you are treated with dignity.”
Coleman usually visits the nonprofit once a week and portions out the 200 points she gets for her household. On her final trip in August, she has 66 points left to spend. She sits at the computer to pick out her groceries. “I usually get meat, bread, and potatoes first,” she says. “Once I have those, then I can add to it.” She clicks on the meat item, and then the potato icon, and still has 60 points left. She adds bread, two packages of egg noodles, two boxes of macaroni and cheese, and some bags of chips, which she plans to give to the kids at her church. When she hits “done,” a printout of her items is sent to a volunteer, who will prepare her order. Lutheran’s Amato says that each day, the nonprofit relies on six or seven volunteers to run DigiMart kiosks, fulfill orders, and check in clients. “Additionally, volunteers accept and sort through donated items, stock pantry shelves, and help manage the inventory,” she says.
While the volunteers work on Coleman’s order, she is allowed to fill one plastic bag with produce. She picks out apples, cantaloupe, and onions. Are those fresh green beans? “Well, look at that,” she says. It goes into the bag.
Her box of items is brought out in a shopping cart. As there is extra bread — the pantry gets donations from a variety of stores and needs to disperse them quickly — she can pick out four types. Since the nonprofit has a surplus of items with an expiration date, she can also grab extra meat, choosing pork chops and ribs. Now she knows what’s for dinner tonight. “Smothered pork chops and fried potatoes,” she says. “I can eat that for a few days.”
Before checking out, she also gets to pick out miscellaneous items that need to be used. She grabs a prepackaged crab salad and sandwich. “That ain’t bad,” she says.
Rebecca Martin and her husband, Jonathan, began using the Catholic Charities’ food pantry shortly after the arrival of their baby in July. Rebecca is a Navy veteran and 100 percent disabled, meaning she can’t work. Even prior to having a newborn, the family’s budget was already tight, causing Jonathan to sell all but two of the nine guns in his collection. “It was really difficult and depressing to do, but it needed to be done,” he says.
Looking for a way to supplement the income she receives from disability, and get the nutrients she needs while she breast-feeds, Rebecca applied for Women, Infant and Children, a federally funded program for low-income mothers. That program also recommended the food pantry.
About 4,000 people come through Catholic Charities’ pantry every month — they can only come once every 30 days and have 10 minutes to select up to 10 pounds of items, which doesn’t include produce or bread. In order to qualify for assistance, people need proof of residence, any type of government-issued identification, and proof they are low-income such as Medicaid or SNAP benefits paperwork.
By design, the pantry looks like a five-aisle supermarket. Rows of canned goods and boxed items line the shelves. There is even a produce section, and a meat and dairy aisle. Next to the weigh stations and check-out counter are bread donations.
Rebecca always imagined a food pantry as a place that just gives people a box of preselected items, a method many other food banks use. But this feels like grocery shopping to her. “It also means I can get fruits and more nutritious items,” she adds.
While food banks give people set items, there is something beneficial about getting served a hot meal. That’s why Friends in the Desert, based out of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Henderson, started. It’s one of many free community meals offered by churches and nonprofits.
People are already lined up at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, even though the door won’t open until 4:30 p.m. “This meal is a blessing,” says one man in line. “If not for this, many of us probably would be stealing. You think you would never steal, but that changes when you’re hungry.”
While Friends in the Desert sees a lot of homeless, Muriel Dufendach, the operations manager for the meal, says it also gets families who are food insecure and just need a meal to help them get by. Usually for them, it’s situational, and they only come for a period of time. Lutheran Social Services of Nevada also partners with two churches to put on a free community meal for the elderly.
When a person is dealing with food insecurity, says Karen Kyger, the executive director of HopeLink of Southern Nevada, they are most likely dealing with another issue, such as housing or unemployment. The food they are getting, and even the food stamps that help them get by, don’t address the underlying reasons why they are in this position. Beyond a meal, family resource centers like HopeLink seek to break a cycle.
Once a person or family comes to HopeLink, the case managers work beyond the crisis that brought them through the door. “It could be food insecurity or it could be rental assistance that brought them in,” she says. “We want to see the whole picture, though, and not just a snapshot.”
That means taking a look at clients’ income, how they spend their money, and what other assistance they have, if any. “We help them budget more effectively,” she adds. Kyger says it’s also about teaching people living in poverty how to shop more effectively so their food budget can last longer.
Case managers can stay with clients for months while they find stability and become more food secure. Even if they are able to get back on their feet again and save money, often people are one emergency away from falling back and might have to start again. But that should never stop people from trying. “You can go up,” Kyger says. “It’s not easy, and it’s not fast, but with help you can recover.”