Today, as many Southern Nevada residents and tourists sit down to enjoy a festive Thanksgiving dinner, a large cross-section of the population relies on local non-profits for food and other essentials. The need is greater this holiday, given the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic.
Workers, many of whom recently were employed at casinos, now find themselves without a job after gaming companies concluded they had no option but to undertake layoffs. More layoffs or reduced hours could take place after tighter state restrictions were imposed this week on casinos, restaurants, and bars.
One of the most pressing issues for those who find themselves out of work is to have an adequate food supply.
That’s where Three Square Food Bank comes in. Founded in 2007 by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the non-profit serves diverse residents in Southern Nevada, be it singles, households with children, or seniors.
Typically, Three Square provides more than 41 million meals each year. That number could be higher for 2020, given recent unemployment data.
As of September, Las Vegas had an unemployment rate of 14.8 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nevada had an unemployment rate of 12 percent in October. These rates are among the highest in the US.
As of last month, one in five individuals in Southern Nevada was described as being “food-insecure.” Among them are 171,510 children, according to a Feeding America organization study.
Earlier this year, Three Square estimated there was a 30 percent jump in demand for food distributions.
As the pandemic led to an economic downturn, Three Square quickly increased food distribution by 250,000 meals per week. Volunteers assisted in distributing the food.
The organization’s call center also regularly referred those with needs to food sites, social services, and sources for unemployment benefits.
Still, proposed additional federal relief programs through stimulus checks remain stalled in Congress. It is unclear when more relief will come.
“We in the food banking industry are keeping … a close watch on what happens with further stimulus,” Three Square Chief Operating Officer Larry Scott told Casino.org this week.
“As stimulus money winds down, there becomes a greater reliance on food banks. And so, we’re particularly aware of — and watching closely — to see what could potentially happen with more stimulus money. If not, we have a greater role to fill,” Scott added.
Economically Diverse Households Need Help
One noticeable trend with this pandemic is that the need is present across income levels. Especially at drive-through distribution events, individuals from diverse socio-economic groups take part.
“You can easily see the difference [in] the types of automobiles that are in line waiting for food. And I can tell you, it covers all economic classes,” Scott said.
The pandemic has led to other changes for Three Square, too.
“We had to rebuild our methodology for prepping food because we were not able to bring the 200 or so volunteers into our building each and every day to help us pack meals and to sort produce,” Scott recalled. “And then, of course, distributing the food had to be done with social distancing.”
On top of that, many volunteers, especially seniors, had to curb volunteering activity to reduce risk of contracting coronavirus.
But an efficient system was put in place to expand both food pantry offerings and provide food at drive-through distribution sites. Often, the drive-up events had cars lined up for several miles.
Casino Workers Well-Represented Among Volunteers
Gaming and hospitality workers, as well as casino companies, are among those who volunteer their time and money to help the program.
We’ve had many hospitality industry people volunteer to help at our drive-through distribution sites,” Scott said. “You are able to interact with those folks…. It’s been heartwarming to watch people who had their lives interrupted with unemployment, also willing to come out and donate their time and serve others in the community.”
He confirmed, too, how the hospitality industry has “always been a tremendous support” for Three Square. “Initially, when the [gaming] properties closed [in March], many of them emptied their freezers and their coolers and pantries, and we rescued hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds of food in a matter of a few days … to redistribute …to the needy,” Scott said.
Since then, casino operators like Boyd Gaming Corp. or Station Casinos provided parking lots free of charge for food distribution events.
“The COVID pandemic … clearly had a significant impact on our community. As one of the largest companies in the Valley, we felt an obligation to provide additional assistance to our neighbors …,” said David Strow, a spokesman for Boyd Gaming. “Three Square has stepped up to help thousands of Valley residents over the past year. We’re honored to help support them in their mission.”
This Thanksgiving, Three Square will also provide holiday food boxes. Holiday trimmings will be included.
Also, normal boxes with produce, dairy products, and meats continue to be distributed. Given the need, organizations like Three Square are ready to help.
“I think that the greatest words of encouragement that I can offer to those who are needy is that there is a massive army of people who care about them and who are donating their time and treasure and talent, to being able to make sure that these people do not go hungry,” Scott said. “Help is always just around the corner for them.”
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