Three Square’s team began loading food into cars a little early on Tuesday at Tarkanian Middle School. By 10:55 a.m. (five minutes before the scheduled start time), volunteers were approaching the open trunks of cars with packages of between 50 and 60 pounds of food, each designed to supply balanced meals to a family for about two weeks.
As the team worked, the occupants of at least 50 cars, pickups, minivans, SUVs and other vehicles patiently awaited their turn, in two lines that circled through the school parking lot.
“When we started our drive-thru sites, we were anticipating 200 to 225 cars at a site,” Three Square Chief Operating Officer Larry Scott says. “(Since then), we’ve had some sites where we see over 500 and 600 cars. So demand has grown dramatically.”
Sites like this are just one example of how Southern Nevada’s largest food bank has been rapidly reacting to the changing circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis to meet the growing need for food, while contending with fluctuating supply lines and major shake-ups in its ordinary channels of distribution.
“It started when the schools closed,” Scott says of the week of March 16, when asked how the virus has changed food bank operations. “We were providing approximately 18,000 after-school meals a day to schoolkids. Then those schools closed, and that channel of distribution was closed to us.”
The organization responded by eliminating its backpack lunch program, which under normal circumstances relies on 150 to 200 volunteers to pack lunches in an assembly-line style that would have been problematic in the age of social distancing. Those concerns also forced the food bank to change its normal distribution partnerships with several local agencies.
“We suspended food delivery to 170 of our agency partners, many of which had already closed their doors, fearful that they were served by many senior volunteers, and they were not able to accomplish social distancing,” Scott says.
That’s when the idea of drive-up distribution sites emerged. In cooperation with nine of its largest local partner agencies, the nonprofit organization established two dozen drive-up locations that would operate six per day, every Tuesday through Friday.
By thinking on its feet in this way, Three Square was able to respond quickly when several major casino companies closed on the orders of the governor and found themselves with large quantities of perishable food they wanted to share with the community before it went to waste.
“For the first two days post-closing, we received approximately 300 pallets of perishable food items (from casinos). It included fruits and vegetables, dairy and deli meats, primarily. Three hundred pallets at an average pallet weight of maybe 1,200 pounds is a tremendous amount of food.”
Using the new distributions methods, the organization was able to get most of that food into the hands of people who could use it within a week.
Despite these successes, Scott says, the need continues to grow “in volumes that we really can’t even measure perfectly yet.” In the meantime, the company is facing interruptions in some regular sources of food. So-called grocery rescues of unpurchased perishables from local supermarkets are down, as those stores face increased demand and bare shelves. And bulk donations from large wholesalers have been interrupted by pressures on the supply lines.
“There’s so much demand for freight going to the grocery stores that it’s either difficult or impossible or excessively expensive to bring some trucks in,” Scott explains.
On the bright side, Scott says, federal commodities “have been uninterrupted” during the crisis. And donations have allowed them to purchase food to fill supply line gaps.
“Foundations have been generous,” he says. “The hospitality industry has been very generous. And individuals who are sending in $10 have been extremely generous. So yes, we have been blessed well from this community. We need more. But we’ve been well taken care of.”
To donate, volunteer or find locations and hours of distribution sites, go to ThreeSquare.org.
Contact Al Mancini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5250. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.