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Seniors, children hit hard by hunger

A new report from a local food bank paints a sobering picture of hunger in Nevada, particularly among the state’s most vulnerable: children and seniors.

The 38-page report, titled "Hunger’s Impact on Our Community: Envisioning a Food-Secure Southern Nevada," also offers recommendations for addressing the problem, chiefly getting more people enrolled in the "under-utilized" federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps.

"Hunger is a solvable problem," said Julie Murray, president and CEO of Three Square food bank, a nonprofit organization that supplies food to 270 agencies that feed the needy. The food bank consulted dozens of local and national experts on hunger for the report, released Tuesday.

The ranks of the hungry in Nevada have swelled as economic conditions have worsened. Almost one in five Nevada children does not have access to enough food at home and must rely on federal aid or community food programs to meet his or her needs, according to the report. About 100,000 people in Clark County experience "very low food security," or have had to reduce their food intake or skip meals, based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report reveals that hunger among seniors has been woefully understudied in Nevada, and that some programs that could help seniors are underused.

Many eligible seniors don’t take advantage of SNAP funds, for example.

Meanwhile, programs such as Meals on Wheels, which delivers low-cost or free nutritional food to seniors who are unable to prepare their own meals, have lengthy waiting lists.

Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada established the local Meals on Wheels 35 years ago. It delivers 1,300 meals a day to local seniors older than 60. Eight hundred seniors are on a waiting list for the program, said Sharon Mann, Catholic Charities’ spokeswoman.

"There’s not enough money to support the program" for that many people, Mann said. "Look at our valley, how many seniors — how many people — are struggling."

Three Square plans to launch its own food program for seniors this year to fill some of the gap, Murray said.

While the report’s numbers are disheartening, it provides "a road map" for fighting hunger, she said.

Three Square has launched a "food stamp outreach program," Murray said. A team of staffers has begun visiting emergency food pantries and schools to help qualified people sign up for SNAP. Nevada has traditionally had low participation rates in SNAP, according to the report.

"We can drive more federal dollars to the state if we jump in and help qualify people to get food stamps," Murray said.

The report’s other recommendations include increasing coordination among local social service providers, improving outreach and referrals at emergency food provider sites, and further identifying ways to meet seniors’ needs.

"It’s important for people to understand that hunger is happening to people in our community, in our backyard," said Louise Helton, state director of Communities in Schools of Nevada, an organization that works to keep kids in school, in part by fighting childhood hunger.

"You don’t have to do anything ridiculously heroic to help them," she said. "Just volunteer, donate. We have it within our reach to do a lot."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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