Pandemic Chronicles: Food banks beating hunger pains

Agencies and the community respond to 60% increase in demand

PHOTO/Catholic Charities: Employees pack food at Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada.

By Frank X. Mullen

There’s no reason for anyone to go hungry in the Reno area, even during this economic meltdown. That will be the case as long as donors keep contributing and volunteers keep showing up, local food charities said.

“I’ve been coming here for more than a year after my friend told me about it,” said Manny, 68, who carried a box of shelf-stable and fresh food to his pickup truck in the parking lot of Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada in Reno. “When (the pandemic) hit I thought there would be a shortage because of all the people losing their jobs, but if anything I think there’s been more variety (of food) lately…  It’s a good deal. They really help you out.”

The economic crash has strained emergency food resources around the nation and changed the way those services are being delivered. Catholic Charities’ pantry on Fourth Street is open Monday through Friday during two shifts, 9 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 3:30 p.m. Their St. Vincent’s Dining Room, Reno’s oldest “soup kitchen,” is now closed for dine-in eating, but is serving hundreds of hot, to-go lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday.  “The food ain’t bad, brother,” said Sam Fox, 48, who said he has been living on the streets for about nine months and visits the dining room a couple times a week. “You show up, they feed you, no questions asked. You can’t beat that. We dine al fresco now.”

 These days, long-term emergency food program clients like Manny and Fox are being joined by folks who hadn’t previously faced hunger. In an area where more than 42 percent of households are rental properties and many workers survive from paycheck to paycheck, thousands of families already lived on the edge. The economic crash in the wake of the COVID pandemic tipped a lot of those families into a financial abyss. Nevada’s unemployment rate hit 28% in April, the highest in the nation. Charities that provide emergency food in Northern Nevada reported a 30% to 50% spike in demand as people lost jobs the first two months of the lock down.

Yet, despite supply-chain interruptions, the unexpected redesign of delivery systems and rapidly increasing demand, the area’s emergency food providers and the community have made sure famine isn’t a handmaiden of the contagion.

“We’re now seeing 50 to 60% increases in demand at most of our distribution sites,” said Jocelyn Lantrip, director of marketing and communications at the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. “We’re seeing a lot of families who are reporting recent job loss that haven’t needed help in the past.” She said prior to the shutdown, the Food Bank, which works with 145 partner agencies, was helping 91,000 people each month.  In April, incomplete estimates show that total soared above 116,000 people being served. She said the increase in clients happened so fast “it’s really hard to get a handle on the really big picture of what’s happening.”

 In addition, the agency had to change everything about the way it operates. “We’ve had to create social-distancing and minimize contact between clients and our volunteers and employees, and we’ve converted to a drive-through format, which changed our schedule,” Lantrip said. Even then, they’ve had to be nimble. “The schedules and locations have changed every month because we’ve had to move around to different parking lots that can serve 500 people that are driving through,” she said. The Food Bank used lots at the Meadowood Mall and the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino, but as those businesses reopen, new venues, which now include school parking lots, had to be found.

PHOTO/Catholic Charities: Food donations and distributions are now a drive-through affair.

“What we were seeing before the pandemic was a lot of people who were working but their expenses were higher than their income so they had trouble making ends meet,” Lantrip said. “That was the story we heard over and over. So we would see them occasionally. Now we’re seeing a lot of unemployed people. Just like the rest of the world, we don’t know how long that’s going to last. Our feeling is it’s going to take a long time for those low-income residents to recover.”

Right now, many laid-off workers are living on unemployment payments, temporarily supplemented by an extra $600 per week from the federal CARES act. Renters also are protected by a state moratorium on evictions that now extends through June 30. Lantrip said both of those mitigating factors could end at around the same time, further increasing the need for emergency food.

“It’s a tough situation and we’re just trying to make sure we’re there and we’re getting enough food out and trying to be safe at the same time,” she said. At first, food donations decreased as the Food Bank dealt with virus concerns and supply-chain disruptions. But the bank had a lot of commodities in reserve, monetary donations rolled in and corporate sponsors stepped up. The bank sent its volunteers home for the first few weeks out of fear of COVID, but Nevada National Guard members took their places in the agency’s warehouse and kept the chow moving to the people in need.

The bank’s Kids Café, which serves children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches when school isn’t in session, was a sit-down meal program but converted to a grab-and-go model. Now parents stop by to pick up three days worth of meals at a time. “We’ve served 225,000 meals since mid-March. That’s close to what we would normally serve in Kids Café in a year,” she said.

The bank’s first food drive since the pandemic began — its initial drive-through event — took place May 29 and gathered 7,700 pounds of food. Volunteers also are back on the job. “Right now, our biggest need is money to purchase more food,” Lantrip said. Donations can be made through the organization’s Web site, and corporate giving plans and event sponsorships also are offered.

The Northern Nevada Food Bank is the central agency for emergency food distribution and works with dozens of area churches and scores of other food pantries and mobile harvest locations all around Washoe County. Those collection and drive-through distribution schedules may be found on line. A listing of food pantries in Northern Nevada outside Washoe County also is available on the main Food Bank website.

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