Evangeline Valdez shops at The Just One Project’s no-cost grocery store at CCSD Family Support Center on Aug. 25. (Photo: Camalot Todd/Nevada Current)
The gap between hunger and satiation for many Americans is is not getting any smaller as groceries, rent, and health care costs rise and pandemic-era relief ends. More families are skipping meals, eating out less, and turning to food banks for help despite inflation falling for the first time in years.
Teetering on the less fortunate side of the divide are Nevada families like Jennifer Turner and her 5-year-old grandson, or Evangeline Valdez and her daughter, who just graduated from Garside Middle School. One in five children live in food insecure households in Nevada and approximately 75% of CCSD students qualify for free or reduced meals.
“Hunger doesn’t discriminate,” Turner said, as she picked out cantaloupe, grapes, and baby wipes. Turner and Valdez were the first customers to shop the aisles at the no-cost grocery store at the Clark County School District Family Support Center, which opened on Thursday.
“I used to be able to go to the grocery store and spend $60, $70, $80 dollars and get three or four bags of things, and now one and a half bags, maybe two? It all depends on the meat, and if you get the meat you have to cut back on the vegetables, and if you get the vegetables, you can’t get the snacks,” she said.
The no-cost grocery store is one of three that will be opening in the Las Vegas Valley this year through a partnership between The Just One Project, a nonprofit helping Southern Nevadans facing food insecurity, the Clark County School District (CCSD), and the Health Plan of Nevada (HPN), a company within the UnitedHealth Group insurance corporation, through a two-year collaboration.
“Most of what influences a person’s health and wellness happens outside of a doctor’s office. Access to nutritious food, reliable transportation, quality mental and behavioral health, and jobs are some of these social drivers,” Kelly Simonson, the CEO of Health Plans Nevada’s Medicaid program, said.
The Family Support Center Community Markets are for children and families enrolled in CCSD by appointment, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (closed during CCSD holidays) and staffed by The Just One Project case managers, who decide the amount of food and services based on the size of the family and their needs during the intake process.
While other social service programs can require extensive intake processes and paperwork, The Just One Project wanted to eliminate excessive barriers to food security.
HPN pledged over $668,000 to support three no-cost markets at CCSD sites and a “Groceries-on-the-Go” program which will set up pop-up stores in food deserts throughout Southern Nevada which will be available to everyone.
The “Groceries-on-the-Go” program is set to launch in November, Brooke Neubauer, the founder, and CEO of The Just One Project, said. The Just One Project collaborated with UNLV to research the zip codes in Southern Nevada where there are barriers to grocery stores like distance, transportation, and income.
The three no-cost grocery stores for CCSD families will be located in multiple locations to serve children where they’re at and the “Groceries-on-the-Go” mobile unit will be in food deserts to meet people in need where they’re at, she said.
The “Groceries-on-the-Go” program launching in November offers low-cost groceries and will accept SNAP benefits, Neubauer said.
When asked about the sustainability of the no-cost grocery stories beyond the initial two-year commitment, Lisa Jolly, chief operating officer of Medicaid for HPN, said HPN has worked alongside The Just One Project for about 5 years and plans to continue the partnership.
Food insecurity households are uncertain they will have, or be able to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of household members due to insufficient resources, and food insecurity is considered a significant public health concern associated with adverse health outcomes and a poor quality of life, including chronic diseases and mental health issue, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But despite Nevada and America’s growing struggle with food insecurity, the U.S. and Isreal were the only two nations to vote against a resolution declaring food a human right during a 2021 United Nations meeting, citing concerns about “restrictive import or export policies” and asserting that “food security depends on appropriate domestic action by governments, including regulatory and market reforms, that is consistent with international commitments.”
The economic stressors of the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated decades of policy failures in the U.S. food system, including burdensome application processes for state and federal relief and underfunded state safety net programs, according to the Center for American Progress, a progressive nonpartisan policy institute.
In Nevada, Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed a bill that would provide universal free lunch in K-12 schools in this last legislative session, writing in his veto message, “Universal free lunch programs were subsidized while responding to the impacts of COVID-19, and were always paid through federal funding sources. These funding sources are no longer available, and district officials should build programs appropriate to their needs. With COVID-19 behind us, it is time to return to the normalcy of pre-pandemic operations.”
But for CCSD families like Valdez and Turner, normalcy hasn’t returned in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Valdez used to shop at the no-cost grocery store at Garside Middle School, which launched this year through a separate partnership between The Just One Project, but after her daughter graduated, Valdez’s family could no longer shop there.
She recalls how they used to eat three times a day before the pandemic and now it’s only once or twice a day, or how they have to save more food by eating half of a meal.
“I’m a single mother, trying to raise my daughter, it’s hard,” she said, “[These groceries] give her protein and nutrients and not only for my daughter but for us, for the family.”
The no-cost grocery store also provides feminine care products, baby wipes, dish soap, and paper towels. Nutritional advice and recipes are available as well as access to homeless prevention assistance, rapid rehousing, and other supportive services.
“Even though we’re still struggling with inflation, there are resources available to meet every age of your family, diapers, sanitary napkins, fruits, vegetables, meat and milk, even dish soap. Things you may not have enough money for,” Turner said.
CCSD families looking to make appointments can do so by calling the Clark County School District Family Support Center at 702-799-0072.
This article has been corrected to credit Lisa Jolly, chief operating officer of Medicaid for HPN with a statement on the partnership between HPN and The Just One Project.
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