Southern Nevadans Struggle With Food Insecurity Now More Than Ever
Last Thursday, I traveled to Trinity United Methodist Church to check out their weekly food bank.
What I assumed was going to be about 100 people, quickly turned into 150 to 200 community members of all different ages, social stature, and ethnicities looking for their next meal.
According to Three Square Food Bank, COVID-19 has made things pretty bad here in Southern Nevada. Prior to the pandemic, 272,000 Southern Nevadans were food insecure. Now, that number is around 447,000 Southern Nevadans.
So, for those who have to decide whether they are going to pay their bills or eat that night, what is life like? And do they solely blame the pandemic for these hardships?
Patricia, a cafeteria worker for Clark County School District who was one of many school district employees let go due to COVID-19, was waiting on a rock next to the front of the church and told me financially she is suffering.
“It’s been a real tragic situation,” she said, “The reason why I’m out here today is because my food is depleting, and I don’t have the finances because of COVID. The unemployment is not coming through the way it should so. I’m kind of relying on just my daughter and her providing for me. So, I’m out here trying to get some food pantry”
Patricia said she had been to a food pantry before but not for a year.
“This is my first time in a long time,” she said, “It’s a sad situation and I’m hoping that the president really does something to impact this crisis and change what has happened to the United States.”
I met another woman named Sarah, who with her two neighbors, were getting food for her community. She worked prior to the pandemic and continues to apply for unemployment with no luck. Now, she is now facing the reality that the money might be gone.
“I have this big problem right now with this pandemic because we cannot do anything,” she said, “We’re broke. We have no money. So, right now, we are not even working. We didn’t get approved, [we] applied for unemployment. We didn’t get approved. We didn’t get the money. So, that is why we are here to ask for food because we cannot afford anything and there is no job out there. I don’t know what the government is doing about this. They have to do something about this.”
She said they keep applying for unemployment, but they got a note saying they have run out of money.
“We applied since May. We never got the money and then we got a notice that the state ran out of money,” she said.
Sarah and her two neighbors make a weekly commute from North Las Vegas to pantries around the valley to help feed their families and their neighbors.
“I tried to get some food and tried to help the neighbors. I cook some for the senior citizen,” she said, “I try to give away food every time I cook, but I can only do so much. I want to help because we have a family of three and we don’t have any income right now. So, we come here and wait in line to get food. That is all we can do.”
Sarah said she distributes some of the food that she gets to her neighbors and seniors.
“We try to economize everything, economize,” she said, “We can’t even afford to pay our utility bill right now. I can’t afford to pay my rent anymore. So, I don’t know what is going to happen because we applied for the rental [assistance]. I don’t know if they’re going to approve me for that. But, I’ve been promising my landlord to help me out on this. Right now, it’s been three months. I have been able to pay my rent.”
As I made my way through the line, I met a duo of retirees. Pat and Patricia, who both also commuted from North Las Vegas, are grateful for the food bank but disappointed and hurt by what has happened to their communities since COVID-19.
“I’m glad we got a place to get something… I hate this heat though. This heat is horrible. Have to stand in the heat. But a lot of people don’t know about this place and they don’t come and they don’t have any food at home, especially older people.”
“It is sad. It is really sad. It is really impacting a lot of people’s lives. It impacted mine because I can’t afford the food and a lot of things I’m used to having I can’t afford to do that now. So, I’m just living on a day-to-day basis. Because I know a lot of people, who were working and they were doing things and having things, who are now at rock bottom and there is no help.”
Pat and Patricia say there is not much they can do but stick together and help each other out as much as they can.
Trinity United Methodist Church has been giving out food for the past 10 years. The church's Office Manager Donna Zbierski explains that it's a long process and they get a lot of help and supplies from the community.
“We fill up boxes of food in the back and we call out a number,” she said, “People come with their number, they take their box of food, they take some bread or whatever else we have on the side, and then they get in their car and go. Each person gets meat, dairy, vegetables, canned goods, bread, cake – everything. We’ve got a little bit of everything. We make sure separate enough so that everybody gets something. We don’t leave them without anything.”
Zbierski said if they run out of canned goods they’ll give somebody extra meat or extra dairy to make up for the shortage.
“It comes from Three Square, Sprouts and Walmart,” she said. “And then we get some of the doughnuts from Carl’s and we get some bread from Great Grains, Faith Lutheran and Bishop Gorman. They’ve donated to us also.”
Another vital figure to the food pantry is Pastor Jennifer Haegman, who says that continuing to provide this service and others is just another opportunity to serve the community.
“It is fulfilling and rewarding,” she said, “It’s not just giving people food. Some folks are new each week but we also have our regulars. We know them by name. They know us by name, and we’ve developed a rapport. It’s a wonderful opportunity to give back.”
Before leaving the food bank, I made one more stop to a volunteer named Tony Hobbs.
Prior to COVID-19, Tony was a CCSD crossing guard. Since he can't go back to school, he spends his time supporting the church, and community. He says he loves how people react when they get their boxes of food.
“It is such a blessing,” he said, “I had one girl come over and she said she just lost her job and she had a little girl with her and she was so glad that we were here to give her some food. She had no idea what she was going to do. Other people they are just so glad to get the food. They tell us all the time how happy they are… they’re really, really glad that we’re able to give them some food.”
Hobbs said the boxes are overflowing with food for people in need. He said people from the church go to Sprouts and other grocery stores to get food.
“Whatever they give us, we kind of make it work,” he said.
After the food pantry closed at 3 p.m., I started reflecting on that day's conversations and kept going back to a point made by Sarah, the woman from North Las Vegas who would give leftovers to her neighbors.
“How much time are we going to survive? How much [are] people [going] to survive? I feel so bad for a lot of people,” she said, “For me, I can survive by cooking and getting food, but some people don’t have those resources.”
Sarah had a great point: How are people who are less fortunate in our community going to survive?
There are 175,000 more people in need of food. Is there going to be enough food for them?
I decided to call Larry Scott, the COO of Three Square. I asked him if there’s going to be enough food to feed the more than 447,000 Southern Nevadans in need and how can those for fortunate make a difference?
“We can’t flick a switch like that and just expect that we have the ability to be able to meet that demand for 450,000,” he said, “I think we are satisfying the greatest need that exists out there today, but there is no question that as this perpetuates out and goes on, that our game is going to have to change. We’re going to have to raise the game, which means getting more food, more volunteers, greater funding. It will require a much bigger effort.”
Scott said the organization needs more volunteers, but because of the risk, it is not letting volunteers in its building, which is difficult because it needs people to help organize the food.
“At these open-air sites, these drive-thru sites, we need tens, if not a hundred plus, – each and every day – to assist us,” he said, “We need them to volunteer. We also need them to go to threesquare.org to do anything they can do to assist us in funding this effort. They can donate. They can donate food. All those options are available on our website for them to find a niche where they can help.”
Larry Scott, COO, Three Square; Donna Zbierski, Office Manager, Trinity United Methodist Church; Jennifer Hageman, Pastor, Trinity United Methodist Church