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Interfaith effort has helped fill food pantries in Las Vegas Valley

Updated July 9, 2021 - 5:59 pm

A flyer for a small food pantry in at a J Street church caught the attention of volunteers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They tracked down the Seventh-day Adventist pantry’s leader, Wyleaner Springfield, to give her some good news: they could provide a pallet of food to her once a month. It upped what she could serve to 20 families weekly at Abundant Life Community Church, a Seventh-day Adventist house of worship.

“They have been so loving to me,” Springfield said. “It brought tears to my eyes because we just latched onto each other.”

The effort was part of the church’s push to reach more food pantries over the last 15 months, regardless of community or faith affiliation. In Las Vegas it typically receives food donations from the church’s charitable arm in Salt Lake City about once a month. In the past, the food was mostly donated to large food banks or pantries such as Three Square. But the pandemic’s impact on food insecurity had Vegas church leaders reconsider.

“We wanted to target small pantries,” said Joyce Haldeman, director of the Greater Las Vegas Communication Council for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We know that Three Square and Catholic Charities do a wonderful job and they have a big footprint, but we were worried about those small neighborhood pantries: Do they have enough food?”

The result was 15 semi-trucks of food coming from Salt Lake City to Clark County, with more than 20,790 cases of food in total. Each month, about 40 Latter-day Saints volunteers unload boxes of beans, pears, applesauce, peanut butter, corn and sauces — then reorganize the pallets to have a mix of products before driving them to each pantry.

Ultimately, donations went to 16 faith-based groups’ pantries and 13 community organizations, the church said. Haldeman said they sought out diverse groups to reach more people.

“It’s really fun to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people of different faiths, of different styles in their life and find out we all care about the same thing,” Haldeman said. “We don’t want anybody to suffer, we don’t want anybody to be hungry. I really think it’s a great marriage when you have faith working within the communities to take care of the needs of whoever’s there, and whoever they are.”

Community groups say the collaboration has said been key. United Labor Agency’s pantry saw a significant increase in its use throughout the pandemic, Maggie Carlton, its executive director, said. Volunteers help get the job done by bringing the pallets and other hands-on work — something she describes as “Mormon muscle.”

But the help is most notable because the increased food donations can extend grant funding longer, Carlton said. She added more fresh produce to her pantry, which is still seeing about triple the families it served pre-pandemic.

“When you plan for a grant, you don’t ever plan for a pandemic,” Carlton said. “When you can have those types of partnerships, it allows you to be able to purchase some of the other stuff that you wouldn’t typically see in a food pantry basket going out. Just because it’s a food pantry doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be nutritious.”

The Latter-day Saints’ food donation ends in July. Leaders said they still plan to collaborate with small food banks in other ways, such as potential grants.

Katy Brooks, the food pantry manager at Jewish Family Services, said she doesn’t see collaborative efforts slowing. Cooperation has helped each group connect with new volunteers and resources that are still necessary to serving their clients.

“I think the increased cooperation with other organizations is long term, I think that we’ve built a really good bond,” Brooks said. “We’ve realized the need for it to work together. And honestly, the demand is still there. I don’t have any foresight as to how long it’ll last.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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