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As Pandemic Wears On In Nevada, Food Insecurity Worries Grow

The Nevada Department of Agriculture distributes food on tribal lands recently amid a rise in food insecurity throughout the state.
Courtesy Nevada Department of Agriculture

The Nevada Department of Agriculture distributes food on tribal lands recently amid a rise in food insecurity throughout the state.

With a quarter of the workforce unemployed and lives disrupted because of the pandemic, the risk of hunger is growing in our state. 


But one group is feeling it more than most: Older people in Nevada. 


Helping Hands of Vegas Valley says the rate of food insecurity has doubled among seniors in Las Vegas.

“I think the biggest reason is because they are the at-risk population for COVID-19,” said Marcia Blake, executive director of Helping Hands of Vegas Valley, “They’re afraid to leave their homes and are afraid to access food in the way they normally access food.”

Blake said Helping Hands of Vegas Valley created a food delivery system to fill that need.

“We started a program where we would go online and order the groceries for them and deliver it to them because many of them lack access to technology or the knowledge to use the technology,” she said.

They also created a program to deliver prepared meals for people who don't want to go to a restaurant. 

Blake said there are some younger, healthier seniors who are feeling more comfortable going to the stores now, compared to the height of the quarantine.

“We’ve actually seen in the last month a decrease in the emergency food situation than we did a couple of months ago but we’re still seeing a lot of seniors that still lack access to food,” she said.

Blake advises people to check on elderly neighbors, family members or church friends to make sure they're getting the food they need.

It is not just seniors who are concerned about food. With so many people out of work and kids out of school, a lot of people are now in that category.

UNLV Cares Food Pantry recently received $250,000 in CARES Act funding to help provide food to the community.

Tanner Ellingsen is the pantry's director. He said the money will be used to improve the pantry.

“With this money and as a result of COVID-19, we’re going to make a shift in the way that we operate," he said, "We’re going to try to bring in some perishable goods and really the biggest thing is we’re going to start processing online orders and try to start some home deliveries as well.”

Ellingsen said food deliver will help the pantry provide for students, faculty and staff whether they're on campus or distance learning this fall.

The pantry was created 10 years ago during the Great Recession. Now, they're seeing demand skyrocket.

“We’re seeing a rise in students, grad students, faculty staff. It doesn’t matter what your classification is because you may have had a significant other that got laid off and now you’re single income, feeding a whole household,” he said.

The pantry is part of the College of Integrated Healthy Science, which means students who are studying nutrition and dietetics help with the pantry.

Ellingsen said that kind of infrastructure along with community support will help keep the pantry open through the pandemic.

While the federal government provides the funds for many food and nutrition programs, like the school lunch and breakfast program, the state actually runs the programs.

Jennifer Ott is the director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture. The department oversees a number of food programs.

She is also the chairwoman of the Council on Food Security, which aims to improve the health and lives of Nevadans by addressing food insecurity.

Ott explained that the council is made up of members from several state agencies, non-profits and food industry representatives. The council works together to address gaps in the food system.

“This pandemic has taught us a lot about what communications and different deliveries and different models can look like," she said, "I mean, it’s a whole new world when it comes to identifying those who are food insecure and the message to get food resources to them.”

She said the council will be using that new-found knowledge to explore innovative new ways to address food insecurity around the state.

And while there is definitely an uptick in demand for food help, she said there has also been an uptick in help.

“There’s been a lot of increase of need and increase of efforts that have arisen to respond to that,” she said.

Blake suggested that those who can help with either a donation of money or time do so. She finds it helps her to not focus on some of the uncertainty going on right now and allows people to say: "I may not be able to do a lot but I can help somebody else who needs help.”


Helping Hands of Vegas Valley

UNLV Cares Food Pantry

Three Square Emergency Food Distribution

Jennifer Ott, director, Nevada Department of Agriculture; Tanner Ellingsen, coordinator, UNLV Cares Food Pantry;  Marcia Blake, executive director, Helping Hands of Vegas Valley 

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.