Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A truck brimming with food — 12,752 pounds worth — rolled up to Grace Immanuel Baptist Church on Bartlett Avenue on Friday afternoon as a growing crowd eagerly eyed its contents.
A dozen volunteers quickly unloaded the food pyramid-worthy assortment of meats, produce, dairy and snack items, careful to avoid the children zipping up and down the pavement.
Within an hour, the small parking lot in the hard-hit community west of Interstate 15 resembled an ordinary farmer’s market with a white-canopy tent covering the goods.
Jerry Ann Wheaton, founder and president of the Family Youth Enrichment Center, isn’t a newcomer to the mobile food pantry spectacle, but the swiftness of the operation caught her off guard again.
“It’s amazing,” she said, staring into the empty truck.
The process happens every other Friday at the church, where Wheaton’s nonprofit partners with Three Square Food Bank to operate the mobile pantry — an increasing strategy to reach people in areas with poor or limited food access.
The mobile pantries differ from traditional pantries because they’re scheduled, mass-distribution events that can quickly serve thousands of people, said John Livingston, Three Square’s chief operating officer.
“There’s nothing left when the people are done,” he said. “It’s meant to be more impactful in a short amount of time.”
Three Square began its first mobile pantry in 2008 in the sparsely-populated Sandy Valley community near California, Livingston said.
As the Sandy Valley operation proved successful, Three Square officials scouted other locations that would benefit based on factors such as access to grocery stores, nutritious food availability and existing agencies’ capacity to feed those in need, Livingston said.
Areas with a slew of fast food chains don’t always have healthy options for cash-strapped residents, he said.
The two Las Vegas mobile pantries that began as a result — Grace Immanuel and Living Faith Assembly on Charleston Boulevard east of downtown — exist in areas marked by high percentages of residents living at risk of hunger.
Grace Immanuel sits in ZIP code 89106, where 27 percent of residents may go hungry despite food stamps and other services already provided in the area, according to a Feeding America report using 2010 data. It’s the same situation in neighboring ZIP codes.
Other mobile pantries began in surrounding rural areas known as “food deserts”: Pahrump, Mesquite and, earlier this month, Laughlin, Livingston said. A Caliente location will begin in February, he added.
“It’s a game of strategic chess,” Livingston said, describing where to operate them.
The mobile pantries rely on good partner agencies, which distribute the food after Three Square delivers it to the various locations, Livingston said.
If there’s a silver lining to the recession in Las Vegas, that’s it, he said.
“People have really come together here,” said Livingston, who moved to Las Vegas four years ago from Minnesota, where he worked for a sister food bank. “Everybody back then was doing something, but it was in silos, and nobody was sharing. But now the collaborative spirit has changed, and people are working together for the common good.”
By 2 p.m. Friday at Grace Immanuel, a line snaked around the church and spilled onto Revere Street as the mobile pantry opened for business, free to anyone who needed help.
About 300 families signed up to attend the event, which grows by 75 to 100 new clients each date, Wheaton said. That’s an estimated net reach of 3,000 children, adults and seniors served through every biweekly event.
More than 700 families total have signed up, but not everyone attends each time, she said.
Even so, the Family Youth Enrichment Center volunteers — all unemployed except for one person who is retired — work the mobile pantry with a single mantra in mind: “We turn nobody away,” Wheaton said.
That includes the young man recently released from prison; a woman on the verge of suicide because she lost her job and her husband’s hours were cut; the unemployed, single father of three; and the mother of eight whose 2-year-old grabbed a sandwich from a garbage pile while she scoured the neighborhood for food.
Organizers suspect the turnout grew by word of mouth, underscoring the need in the community.
Take Gail Spencer, for instance. She stood in spot No. 9 Friday and rattled off a handful of people she told about the mobile pantry. Plus, she shares food with her sister-in-law who lives too far to attend.
Spencer first visited the mobile pantry in June after she and her husband lost their jobs. The parents of two children, including a daughter who has had multiple heart surgeries, they found themselves scraping to make ends meet after paying bills.
“It’s helped out tremendously,” she said. “If I don’t need it, I won’t come.”
On top of the $200 Spencer saves each month, she said her occasional visits also bred friendships as clients chatted in line.
“They know you and see you, and if it’s been two or three weeks, they’re wondering where you are,” she said.
Charles Whaley, a transitional housing resident who lives several streets away from Grace Immanuel, credits the mobile pantry for helping feed his family, which includes his mother, daughter and granddaughter.
“In this economy, without an outlet like this, it would be a sad day for many,” he said. “We need more food banks like this.”