Stress on food bank persists, but federal help is winding down

‘That’s a significant amount of food we have been receiving and will no longer get’

Three Square Food distribution at Henderson Lutheran Church in April (Three Square photo by Jeff Scheid)

While the spread of the coronavirus in Nevada is accelerating, another crisis shows no signs of slowing either – the number of people experiencing food insecurity in the state.

In response, nonprofits like Three Square of Southern Nevada, the only food bank in Clark County, have scaled up their operations to meet demand. The organization is distributing 5.6 million pounds of food each month, a year ago that number would have been 4.7 million pounds per month.

More than 50 percent of the food distributed by the organization is provided through three federal programs, the largest one being the Farmers to Families Food Boxes. Originally scheduled to end in October, the Department of Agriculture now plans to end the program at the end of December.

“That’s a significant amount of food that we have been receiving and will no longer get,” said Larry Scott, Three Square’s Chief Operating Officer. “We will have to receive more donated food and we will have to rely more on purchased food to replace federal commodities.”

Federal assistance for food banks could be increased through congressional action. However, negotiations over a  new stimulus package have gone nowhere for months, and there is little promise that will change during the lame duck session of Congress. With the pandemic and unemployment, food pantries in Nevada have been seeing an increased demand for supplies since the spring. Three Square has seen an estimated 30 to 40 percent increase in demand for groceries from food insecure Nevadans, said Scott.

“The last 90 days have been leveling off but we are still seeing unprecedented high levels of need,” Scott said. 

Food demand is expected to stay high for several years. Scott said they are preparing to feed an excess of 400,000 people continuously for the next few years.

“Federal commodities have been the source of food that has allowed us to increase to that level,” said Scott. “We are looking at every possible alternative to replace the commodities at the same time we are holding up hope there might be some new levels of stimulus that allow the programs to continue.”

SNAP in demand

There’s more than just anecdotal evidence of increased demand for food assistance. At the end of March, after the resort industry shut down, the number of applications of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increased by 400 percent compared to the same time last year, according to data from Nevada’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services (DWSS). 

The spike in applications leveled off when unemployment claims started going through, but many of those applicants continue to rely on SNAP.

As of October, there were 472,000 SNAP recipients in the state, a 13 percent increase in SNAP participants since the same time last year, according to projections provided by the Director’s Office of Data Analytics.

In March, at the start of the pandemic, there were more than 411,000 SNAP recipients in the state, about 60,000 less than now.

Additionally, not all applications that are submitted to the agency are approved, either because the applicant did not qualify or other mitigating circumstances. In April an average of about 22 percent of applicants were denied benefits, according to data from DWSS. In May about 33 percent of applicants were denied while another 27 percent were denied in June.

Nevada’s poorest and most vulnerable households were further denied additional SNAP assistance from the CARES Act as a result of a federal policy. The Department of Agriculture excluded emergency SNAP dollars from going to families already receiving the maximum amount of benefits, meaning low-income families who require the most assistance — a total of about 55 percent of SNAP households from March through June, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

Prior to the pandemic, it was not uncommon for DWSS to see an increase in new SNAP applications at the end of summer and again at the beginning of the year — months that align with school starting and the end of holiday temporary employment— and with Nevada’s economy and employment numbers expected to take years to recover, SNAP applications may rise further.

While employment in Nevada increased by about 3,400 jobs in September, there are still 127,600 fewer people in the workforce than in September 2019, according to the latest economic report from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR). 

The state’s unemployment rate in September was 12.6 percent, down from 13.3 percent in August but up 8.9 percentage points when compared to September 2019.

Three Square of Southern Nevada assists with SNAP applications in addition to providing groceries to Nevadans. The operation was previously volunteer-based but with COVID restrictions and an increase in the volume of applicants, the food bank moved to a full-time employee model, paid for largely by donations from corporations and foundations.

“There was an avalanche of activity for the first several months of the pandemic,” said Scott, Three Square’s chief operating officer, adding that the need for SNAP assistance has leveled off but remains “very high.”

Three Square also offers help to households with referrals to other assistance programs including Medicaid, and housing assistance as well as help with applications for benefits including the Energy Assistance Program (EAP).

Thanksgiving 2.0

Nevadans have been urged to stay home as much as possible, which may complicate the work of distributing food, said Scott. 

“With the most recent stay-at-home 2.0,” Scott said, referring to a phrase used by Gov. Steve Sisolak, “we have to again suspend volunteer activities inside our building. We have to focus on a few specific programs,” Scott said.

Need help?

Three Square of Southern Nevada provides food to Nevadans in need as well as SNAP application assistance.

Drive-thru distribution centers are open throughout Southern Nevada, and providers have compiled a list of all sites including hours of operation. Walk-in pantries for those without a vehicle are also available across the valley.

Those who need assistance finding food or for seniors over 60 years of age in need of home-delivered groceries can reach Three Square Center at (702) 765- 4030 or by emailing [email protected]

You can donate directly at https://www.threesquare.org/

Catholic Charities will be providing holiday meals to families in need. The charity also feeds those in need daily and provides SNAP and WIC assistance as well as other child and family services like housing and immigration services.

To learn more about their senior Meals on Wheels program you can call 702-385-5284 or visit their website to apply. More information on their food pantry can be found at their website.

You can donate directly at https://www.catholiccharities.com/

The most affected program is the food bank’s Meet Up and Eat Up program, putting most of their childhood nutrition programs that pack meals for kids at a standstill.

Thanksgiving meals for vulnerable families have also been affected by the increase in need.

“Normally we purchase 10,000 to 12,000 turkeys a year to be distributed, but because the volume of food that we need from these federal commodities we simply do not have the freezer or cooler space available to accommodate turkeys this year,” said Scott.

They are however providing holiday boxes to their agency partners with all the trimmings. And some partners are planning to provide the traditional turkey for families in need.

Boxed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, and canned yams –hese are some of the holiday fixings, along with a turkey, that will make up the Thanksgiving meal boxes provided from donations collected by Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.

The nonprofit is also working to provide holiday meals for an additional 1,000 homeless and vulnerable men, women and children, as well as deliver 2,400 holiday meals to the homebound seniors through its Meals on Wheels program. And they need more donations to feed everyone this holiday.

“It’s been an adjustment this year for all of us, but even as this Thanksgiving differs greatly from the last, we remain fully committed to our mission,” said Deacon Tom Roberts, President and CEO of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada. “We urge all Southern Nevadans to please consider opening up their hearts and contributing what they can to assist our neighbors in need this holiday season.”

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.