Updated November 25, 2021 - 7:55 am
On a Thursday in November, Debra Parker-Flowers was giving thanks.
Not for time off, for family or for football, but for the power behind a massive network that distributes free turkeys to food pantries across the Las Vegas Valley.
She successfully passed out nearly 200 turkeys to families driving up to the Macedonia Outreach Social Enrichment Services, or MOSES, food pantry in North Las Vegas.
“Thank God we were able to get them this year because there’s supposed to be such a shortage of turkeys,” Parker-Flowers said one week before the holiday. “We were so worried. But we gave the turkeys, we gave them stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, onions, macaroni and cheese — we gave them the whole meal. Everybody was so happy. It made us all feel so good that we were able to feed so many people.”
Getting more than 11,000 turkeys to about 150 food pantries in Southern Nevada is no small feat. Annual procurement for holiday food drives begins months in advance for the region’s only food bank, Three Square. The operation crosses several states and involves hundreds of helping hands — all to ensure those experiencing food insecurity can have a good meal for the holiday.
Getting the birds
Three Square begins the holiday food shopping season long before pumpkin spice hits menus in the fall. Maurice Johnson, the food bank’s director of operations, said it takes significant planning because of how much is sourced from out-of-state: produce from California, Colorado, and Idaho; canned goods from the Midwest; proteins from the east. Conversations with manufacturers and providers begin as early as January.
The food bank’s staff members then work with its agency partners to estimate approximately how many turkeys they may want for the holiday. Then, they identify vendors that offer bulk discounts to Feeding America affiliates, and lock in the quantity and prices of goods.
This year was particularly challenging, Johnson said, because of the fluctuations in shipping caused by the pandemic.
“Even when we procured them, at that point in time in May, they were not even guaranteed to be here,” Johnson said. “That just goes to show you how disruptive the supply chain has been, considering we could procure them back in May and there was no guarantee that we would get them by Thanksgiving.”
Shipping challenges continued to complicate Thanksgiving deliveries this month. Truckers couldn’t guarantee arrival on Nov. 13 or Nov. 15, so seven of Three Square’s approximately 30-person warehouse and transportation crew came in on Sunday — when the warehouse is normally closed — to receive and process the five truckloads of whole turkeys from brands such as Butterball.
The next day, they were off to agencies in Clark, Esmeralda, Nye and Lincoln counties. Some Three Square deliveries go as far away as Tonopah.
“They started flying out of here — no pun intended — the 15th,” Johnson said.
At the pantry
Prepping for the holidays can look a bit different for pantries — the agencies that purchase or receive donations from Three Square and other sources. At MOSES, Parker-Flowers began holiday planning in September.
Parker-Flowers and Macedonia Outreach Baptist Missionary Church’s food pantry regularly supports about 140 families through its weekly mobile pantry on Thursdays. But the week before Thanksgiving always brings more, so she said she began stocking up on free nonperishables through Three Square weeks earlier.
Each week she ordered the maximum of five cases of corn, green beans, peaches, potatoes and other staples until she reached about two cans or bags per family. At the same time, while unsure of how she would get turkeys, she turned to donors to sponsor a grocery store gift card program.
But Three Square and other donors came through with hundreds of birds for distribution, Parker-Flowers said. So the gift cards — and any extra goods in storage — will be saved for Christmas. In all, she estimates the pantry spent $2,500 for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
“Did I not do good?” she said, laughing.
About a dozen volunteers began packing the fixings on Wednesday evening before the distribution, she said. The day of, volunteers showed up at 6 a.m. to pack the nonperishables. Then pre-registered families picked up their ingredients from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the church. The few turkeys left were given to those who hadn’t signed up or taken to pre-assigned seniors or homebound families in need.
More than holiday meals
Johnson is proud of the balanced meals the food bank is able to provide. The nonprofit estimates every $1 donated can provide three meals. But with about one in eight people in Southern Nevada facing food insecurity according to Feeding America estimates, not everyone may receive a free holiday meal.
“When you think about it in the grand totality of the situation, being able to support those food insecure individuals with a holiday meal that they can actually sit around the table with their family and enjoy, that feeling of supporting them, someone loving on them, especially during the holidays, we’re thankful we’re in that position,” he said. “The unfortunate thing about hunger, it is not seasonal. Hunger is every single day.”
McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.