Each weekend, thousands of young students who rely on the free or discounted meals they receive at school to fuel their minds and bodies, face the prospect of going to bed hungry.
And each weekend, a few volunteers, mostly retired, who can’t fathom the thought of hungry children, do something they’ve likely never done for themselves. They beg.
You’ll find them in front of Sam’s Club on Saturdays, wrangling a case of juice boxes or pop-top puddings from unsuspecting but sympathetic shoppers.
“If I had to buy it, it would cost $9,700 in food costs a week,” says Dale Darcas, founder of the Southern Nevada non-profit Serving Our Kids, of the items needed to fill 3,000 bags of food distributed each Friday to students. “But our members stand outside stores on Saturday and collect food items. We get two-to-one food donations over cash. We’re looking at doing five thousand bags a week next year and going to eight thousand the next year because the need is so great.”
Darcas started up Serving Our Kids more than a decade ago, then hung up his backpacks when Three Square, a non-profit with greater resources, took over the cause.
But not for long.
“A year later I called the schools we had been serving. I found out one had 144 kids in need and Three Square was giving them 50 bags. I went to church and said, ‘Ok. church, which 94 kids aren’t going to eat this week?’”
Volunteer Sue Lindhout has been delivering bags each Friday for six years to four schools, including one that allows her to give them directly to students.
“They all say thank you and some are so happy to get that bag,” says Lindhout. “They’ll say ‘Oh, my grandma’s going to be so happy I got this,’ or ‘My little brother will love this.’ They think about sharing it with others.”
Serving Our Kids, which operates out of a modest warehouse space in Henderson, is on track to exceed the number of students assisted with weekend food by Three Square, the primary non-profit addressing hunger in Southern Nevada.
Both groups provide the food to elementary schools for those students identified by teachers and counselors as coming to school hungry or asking for seconds.
“We deliver 4,500 bags every Friday for those students who have absolutely nothing at home,” says Alexis Merz of Three Square. “We’re using private donor money so it’s only for those who have nothing.”
“Each bag contains items to provide kids with ready-to-eat meals during the weekend. Items may include granola bars, crackers, pudding, cereal, shelf-stable milk, fruit juice boxes and two entrees,” says Three Square’s website.
But is this any way to address childhood hunger?
Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-Nevada) is sponsoring the Weekends Without Hunger Act, which establishes a five-year pilot program to provide food to schools, food banks and non-profits such as Serving Our Kids and Three Square. Titus says more than 200,000 children in Nevada are eligible for discounted or free breakfast and lunch at school. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 13 million children in America live in “food insecure” homes, meaning their families don’t have enough to eat.
Government funding takes the begging and guesswork out of preventing childhood hunger.
Unlike the weekend bags only “for those who have nothing,” Three Square provides government-subsidized dinners for thousands of qualifying Clark County students at Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and elementary schools through its Kids Cafe program.
“Reimbursement from the state allows us to provide 40,000 meals a week. Fresh produce, meats, grains, dairy product, wholesome and nutritious,” says Merz.
During the summer months, Three Square sponsors subsidized “Meet Up and Eat Up” events nightly for students who would otherwise go hungry.
Government grants and other funding targeted for programs to prevent childhood hunger depend on population data determined by the U.S. Census, but children and adults in the Silver State often go uncounted. A question on the 2020 census about citizenship is expected to increase apprehension among immigrants in Nevada.
“In 2010, it was estimated that over 1 million children in the U.S. under the age of 5 were missed in the counts, including a disproportionate number of minority children – Hispanic and Black – that were not counted,” says a policy brief from the Children’s Advocacy Alliance. “In Nevada, 68,000 children under the age of five live in hard to count census tracts.”
“So there are grants and funding but if we don’t accurately count these kids and identify them, the subsidies don’t match the need,” says former Nevada Senator Patricia Farley. “We think there are about 103,000 kids in the state who are chronically hungry. But we can’t count that. We’re missing out on federal money for homelessness, mental health and schools.”
“In the 2010 census, we missed about 13,000 households in Nevada,” says Denise Tanata, director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance (CAA). “That averages to about $1,600 in federal funding per person lost a year. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars over the ten years that the state could lose until the next census.”
Tanata says efforts to reach hard-to-count populations will include school curriculum about the census, designed to bring the information into homes.
In 2015, Nevada had 180,135 children under the age of five with approximately one in five living in poverty. That’s expected to grow by 5.2 percent by 2020, according to the CAA.
Children five and younger are among the most frequently under-counted segments of the population.
Other segments of the population identified as “hard to count” by the CAA include:
- Racial and ethnic minorities
- Persons who do not speak fluent English
- Poor and homeless
- Undocumented immigrants
- Transient populations
- LGBTQ persons
- Residents in rural counties
- Individuals who are angry at or distrustful of the government
Each person uncounted will cost the state $628 in Medicaid funds alone, according to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
An additional 1 percent under count would cost Nevada almost $17 million in federal Medicaid program funding, based on 2015 census data.
In Fiscal Year 2016, data from the 2010 Census resulted in $6,219,293,623 appropriated to 55 federal programs in Nevada. Medicaid is the largest allocation at $2,683,391,000 a year. Every program but the National School Lunch Program depends on an accurate count of not only how many people live in the state, but who they are.
As the saying goes, it takes money to make money.
Nevada state Senate Bill 190, with a price tag of $5 million, seeks to identify all opportunities for the state to receive federal funds and minimize under counting.
Part of the one-time appropriation would pay a public relations firm to do a statewide education outreach campaign to encourage people to fill out their census forms, says Tanata of the CAA.
As the census discards paper in favor of digital forms, some funds would go toward ensuring under served populations have access to computers and are knowledgeable in completing the census online.
“Unfortunately, most individuals (particularly those in Hard-To-Count populations) are not aware of the political and/or financial impacts of the undercount to the state, their communities and to themselves,” says a Children’s Advocacy Alliance policy brief.
Here’s a list of 16 of the largest census-based federally funded programs: