Organizations hustle to boost – and rethink – food distribution

Volunteers distributing food outside Whitney Elementary School early in the pandemic crisis. Multiple food distribution sites are still up and running in Nevada. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)

As the coronavirus pandemic has shut down schools and senior citizens centers across the state, the groups that provide food to Nevada’s most vulnerable are seeing huge increases in need — and facing challenges they’ve never before experienced.

Three Square, a food bank for Southern Nevada, is distributing an average of 1.4 million pounds of food a week now, compared to 1 million pounds before the shut down.

The requests for food delivery from the elderly has jumped by 30 percent, said Larry Scott, Three Square’s chief operating officer.

Meanwhile, the Nevada Department of Agriculture’s program to deliver food to the state’s reservations has seen a 37 percent increase in participation in just one month. NDA Director Jennifer Ott said that almost 500,000 meals have been served to children across the state in the past two weeks alone.

The highly infectious nature of the new coronavirus has caused groups to completely rethink their model for food distribution.

Scott said Three Square had more than 180 agency partners before the start of the pandemic but had to suspend operations with 170 of them due to the closure of non-essential businesses, leaving fewer walk-in distribution sites to serve the public.

Three Square now has 24 drive-through distribution sites throughout Clark County; 21 are schools and three are at Station Casinos.

Another difference with this crisis, Scott said, is that they can’t use volunteers due to the need for social distancing. Shuttered schools in Nevada have hampered their ability to serve families through schools. 

“When we lose that channel of distribution to be able to reach those children we have to find new ways to feed the families,” Scott said. 

The organization mainly distributes food donated by grocers (healthy food that would normally be thrown out) and large wholesale operations. It also receives food from federal resources through the Department of Agriculture, and purchases food.

But demand has increased so much, Three Square has had to rely on purchasing food at a much higher level than they have ever had to in the past, Scott said. According to Nevada’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also known as “food stamps” there’s been a 400 percent increase from last year in applications. A total of 2,689 of the 7,638 people in the process of being evaluated have applied within the last seven days.

One positive is that Three Square has seen an increase in donations as well. 

Companies have also volunteered bags, gloves and masks to the agency to keep volunteers and organizers safe while they distribute food. 

“We seem to be in good shape right now from a supply standpoint,” Scott said. 

The lockdown of nonessential businesses have affected many of their traditional distribution centers too, cutting off reach to some vulnerable populations. There are now fewer walk-in pantries leaving those without a car with fewer locations to pick up food.

Due to operational constraints and reduced public transit demand, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada has had to pull back and limit residential transit service since March 25.

“They have been frustrated,” Scott said. “Some needy folks have expressed their displeasure. We just ask for their patience” 

To reach the roughly 12,000 senior citizens they serve, Three Square is using paratransit buses donated for their use by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.

Scott said one thing Three Square learned from the 2008 recession was that those in poverty and those who have slipped into poverty do not recover at the same rate as the middle class. His group expects to see  a much higher demand for years to come.

“If poverty represents 10 percent of your population going into a recession, two years after the recession has ended poverty will be 4 or 5 percent higher than it was going in,” Scott said.

Kyle Rahn, president and CEO of the United Way of Southern Nevada, said she too anticipates a large need will remain even after the shutdown ends, a need that will face challenges raising funds from large donors who may have suffered losses in the stock market.

“This isn’t like a hurricane hit and we’re all going to text to give to Nevada,” Rahn said. “This is affecting everybody, everybody’s pockets. We are going to have to make hard choices.”

Other state and county agencies are also stepping up to help feed children.

The Clark County School District (CCSD) plans  to distribute breakfast and lunch meals through June 30, 2020. The United States Department of Agriculture issued a nationwide waiver granting school districts the ability to operate Seamless Summer Option which they can build off past summer meals programs.

CCSD currently has 36 food distribution sites and allows meals to be picked up in person while practicing social distancing. 

“The safety and well-being of our CCSD Food Service professionals is a top priority as they work to distribute meals to our students. Measures have been taken to ensure social distancing. Additionally, employees are provided with gloves, and kitchens are cleaned and sanitized throughout the day,” said Mauricio Marin, a spokesperson for CCSD.

Anyone who is 18 years old or younger will be able to go to any public school distribution centers to get free breakfast and lunch for now. 

In order to reach more students, CCSD has collaborated with community partners for additional food sites with varying days and hours of operation. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak Wednesday applauded food distribution efforts around the state. “As of yesterday nearly 500,000 meals have been served by the school districts, the governor said.

“It doesn’t stop with the school districts, though … Between the Food Bank of Northern Nevada and Three Square in southern Nevada nearly 2 million have been provided to over 140,000 eligible individuals,” Sisolak said.

Click here for a list of CCSD food distribution sites

Click here for a list of Three Square Food Bank distribution sites

Click here for a list of The Just One Project distribution sites

Click here for a list of Station Casinos food distribution sites

Click here for a list of Other Community Resources

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.