The couple arrived at the Northern Nevada Food Bank’s drive-through distribution site on bicycles. They carefully packed the donated food in knapsacks so they could get the supplies home.
Then the woman sat on a curb and wept for about 10 minutes as the reality of having to ask for charity – a new experience — overcame her.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who have never had to ask for food assistance before,” said Jocelyn Lantrip, director of marketing and communications for the Food Bank. “She was not prepared for how tough it is to ask for help sometimes.”
Many Nevadans have been facing that unwelcome reality since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping through the country. Businesses shut down and people suddenly lost their livelihoods. Washoe County’s hunger safety net, already under a strain, had to serve thousands of families and individuals who, overnight, joined the ranks of what used to be called “the needy.”
The agencies and the community rose to the challenge.
Agencies, churches meeting hunger needs
The Food Bank, an umbrella organization for 150 agencies, churches, charities and service groups, are coping with the increased demand for emergency and supplemental food. Typically, the Food Bank provides shelf-stable and fresh food to about 103,000 clients in April. This year that number rose to 128,000 for the month, which remains a record, Lantrip said. She said the number of clients has decreased since then, as people received federal stimulus checks and unemployment benefits kicked in.
Now, six months later, the stimulus money is spent, peoples’ unemployment benefits are running out and a moratorium on evictions is soon scheduled to expire. Lantrip said the Food Bank expects another surge in need and a more diverse group of clients.
Prior to the pandemic, she said, the Food Bank served many families who fell under the definition of the “working poor.” Those clients often had jobs, but their wages couldn’t stretch to cover food, rent, utilities and other household expenses. They came to the agency to supplement their food requirements.
But lately, she said, many clients are unemployed and rely on the agency’s food distribution for daily meals.
“Now we hear quite a lot of, ‘I just lost my job,’ or ‘I’m not working right now and I don’t know when I will,’” she said.
More students also rely on food pantries
Pack Provisions is the food pantry for the University of Nevada, Reno which receives donations from the Food Bank as well people from the community. Besides donations, Pack Provisions has partner up with UNR’s Desert Farming Initiative, which provides with fresh produce that is grown locally.
“A lot of people have been open to providing us with donations,” KaPreace Young said, the student engagement outreach coordinator who oversees Pack Provisions. “We’ve been appreciative of this because we know that some are struggling more than others but, their hearts are still in the giving spirit.
Since March, there has been an increase of students and staff using Pack Provisions. In July of 2019, Pack Provisions served 37 people but, in July of 2020 the number increased to 147 people. In August of 2019 they served 101 people but, in August 2020 the number increased to 113.
Elizabeth Violago, a sophomore at UNR who works to jobs but still can’t afford groceries. So, she would uses Pack Provisions to help get groceries for the week. She said that Pack Provisions was the difference on spending $100 on food and spending towards bills, books, and car insurance. Now that students can order online or have it delivered to you, it makes it easier to not feel bad for taking food, Violago said.
Catholic Charities adjusted its operations
Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada, 500 E. 4th St. in Reno, offers many community services including a food pantry and a dining room. They also provide food delivery services for seniors and disabled residents.
Catholic Charities also is experiencing an increase in first-time clients. The operation has had to adjust its practices to stay safe in the pandemic. Workers installed Plexiglas panels in the food pantry. Food distribution now takes place in the organization’s parking lot instead of indoors. St. Vincent’s Dining Room has switched to a “grab-and-go” model for its daily hot lunches.
“When the pandemic started in March, we had a surge of people coming in for emergency services, food services, hot meals and (for help with) immigration,” said Marie Baxter, CEO of Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada.
“Before COVID, we were seeing lots of two-income families,” she said. “Both (adults) were working, (but) now only one person is employed, or they’re experiencing issues with child care. So, this probably the first time that they’re reaching out to get assistance.”
Grace Church operates Food for Families
Sean Ralls of Reno also has had to unexpectedly reach out for help. Before the pandemic, he said, he and his family had no worries about making ends meet. Then came the virus and three months of unemployment. Suddenly, he worried about things that weren’t even on the radar before.
Ralls got help from Grace Church, at 1220 Robb Drive in Reno, and from the Health Insurance Payment Program, which also provides food assistance. Grace Church operated its Food for Families drive during the summer months.
“It’s difficult when we’re used to doing things on our own and there’s that stigma about reaching out to ask others for help, but there’s no shame in that,” he said.
Charities, clients: no stigma in asking for help
Lantrip, of the Food Bank, said there are many resources available in the Reno area for assistance with food needs and other services, but often people are reluctant to reach out for help. Often, she said, people wait until the situation becomes critical.
“We try to encourage people to come earlier in the process,” she said. “So, they’re getting help with their food, and so whatever income they have, they can use it to pay their rent or utility bill.”
Amanda Carter, a single mother with three children, lost her job at a non-profit agency during the pandemic. She also got help from Grace Church’s Food for Families, which provides packaged dinners that can feed four people. She said she’s grateful the program was available when she needed help.
“Leave your shame at the door and come on, there’s no shame here,” Carter said.
Grace Church also sponsored a shoe drive and, with winter coming on, is scheduling a coat drive.
“We’re just grateful to be there for the people of Reno and we love the people of Reno,” said Karen Durst, executive pastor of Grace Church. “We just love them and hand them whatever we can hand them, whether it’s shoes or food.”