Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2022

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Need for food reaches new demographics

Catholic Charities Food Bank

Three-year-old Kelly Cruz Garcia holds a bag of rolls as her mother, Maria Cruz Garcia, selects her food items at the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada in North Las Vegas on Dec. 9, 2010.

In a small space on the second floor of the Promenade Mall, across Maryland Parkway from UNLV, something unusual is happening this semester. Close as it is to campus, it would be ideal for study groups or research collaborations.

But the space isn’t used for either of those. It’s a food bank for graduate students and UNLV employees.

The campus food bank — striking because of the popular image of universities as refuges from economic forces like those that have decimated the valley — is merely one sign of the difficulty some residents are having securing life’s most basic necessity.

The Vista Group, which owns the mall, donated the space after being approached by law professor Robert Correales, who chaired a university advisory group that wanted to help staff and graduate students struggling to make ends meet in light of the bad economy and state budget cuts.

Classified staff, consisting of groundskeepers, secretaries, “folks who actually keep the trains running on time, people you need to do the business of teaching and research,” were hit hard, Correales said. Their salaries, well below those of professors, suffered the same cuts as other state employees while the cost for benefits such as health insurance rose. Correales even heard unconfirmed stories of some staffers living out of their cars.

Established a few months ago, the pantry is operating without the assistance of central food banks because “the idea has been that we would ask our community to take care of ourselves.” In the first week of distribution, about 50 people over two days received food. A stock of about 3,000 items dwindled to 300.

“The commitment was so deep and the symbolism is so powerful,” Correales added. “Students and faculty wanted to show everyone we care.”

Elsewhere, Three Square, Southern Nevada’s central food bank, is also seeing an increase in need for free and low-cost food.

Brian Burton, president and CEO of Three Square, the Las Vegas Valley’s central food hub, said the organization is on target to distribute 25 million pounds of food this year, up from 10 million pounds in 2008. Three Square distributes the food with the help of 250 partners, including groups such as Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.

A 2009 estimate put the number of Southern Nevadans who lack “food security,” which means they live in hunger or fear of starvation, at 300,000. Taking a two-month average, Burton said Three Square distributors are serving 106,000 people per month this year, up from 95,000 at the same time a year ago. Each of those people, however, may represent whole families in need.

“Even during the best of times, the food insecurity number was pretty large,” Burton said.

Three Square, he noted, will be affected by budget cuts in Congress. When school lunch subsidies are cut or food stamps are cut, that increases the number of people seeking help from Three Square. “We’re very nervous about what may happen in Washington,” Burton said.

Father Krier’s small Latin Mass Catholic Church, at Ogden Avenue and 9th Street, is in a decidedly un-redeveloped part of downtown Las Vegas. It serves people who haven’t a moment to wonder about what happens in Congress.

Krier says some are mentally ill and homeless. Some are prostitutes and drug dealers.

Two Wednesdays a month, they come for food. Krier, 53, sits by a stack of crushed cardboard boxes over three feet high that represents the 4,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables his church gave away that day last week. There were about 140 people this time; the monthly average is 325. When the church started food distribution five years ago, they’d get 30 people a month.

Fruit and vegetables from Three Square are free, while other staples such as peanut butter and canned goods are 9 cents a pound. Krier pays with $300 to $400 collected from his parish. Almost all who come for the food are not church members.

Some bring their children, who can watch a video while their parents wait for food. Some are literally starving. In those cases so they can eat right away, “we make it for them right here,” Krier says.

The need and suffering he sees doesn’t appear to get him down. Krier has been here 19 years, doing what he believes he is supposed to do.

“In a way, if we’re keeping people healthy and not starving, then they’re less likely to rob or steal to get something to eat,” he says. “God put us here downtown, so that’s our responsibility.”

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