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Sign of a maturing city

A lot of folks, including me, have been talking lately about how the Smith Performing Arts Center, construction of which is set to start soon, will represent a big step forward for a city not highly regarded for its cultural riches.

I stand by that belief, but it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture of Las Vegas in 2009. Yes, the performing arts center will be a welcome addition to the downtown landscape, but an even more important step forward is occurring just a few miles away.

In the northeast valley, the Three Square food bank is transforming the social service landscape. Not only is Three Square fulfilling its mission to provide food to needy families, but it’s setting a new standard for how to do the job well. It’s also creating a model for how other vital social services — shelter, health care, etc. — could be handled better here.

Three Square is showing us what a true social safety net looks like, and the community — from donors to volunteers — is responding. Earlier this week, three foundations announced donations to Three Square totaling almost $15 million.

The first philanthropy group to get behind Three Square was the Lincy Foundation, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian’s charitable arm, which gave $2.5 million. Then the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation agreed to give the food bank $9.4 million, contingent on whether Three Square could obtain a $2.5 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. When Hilton jumped on board, Three Square suddenly had $14.4 million to work with.

The money is going toward expansion — more space and more services. Food needs in the Las Vegas area are large and growing, according to Julie Murray, chief executive officer of Three Square. “We are proceeding full steam ahead to keep up with the growing demand for food during this recession,” she says.

For years, Las Vegas struggled with haphazard and insufficient food services for the needy. When Three Square came into being just a couple of years ago, that started to change. The high level of organization and professionalism under Murray’s direction has impressed potential donors, as well as the hundreds of nonprofit and religious groups that work with the food bank.

A great example is the Shade Tree Shelter for women and children. Marlene Richter, Shade Tree’s executive director, says Three Square has completely changed the food situation at the shelter, which houses almost 300 homeless women and children.

Before Three Square, Richter says, the shelter was feeding its clients out of dented cans of food, cans that didn’t have labels and packages with past expiration dates. “It was an inhumane way to treat people who are hungry,” she says. “Now we have fresh produce. Fresh produce! This was unheard of a few years ago.”

With Three Square handling Shade Tree’s food, the shelter is paying less for its food, offering higher-quality meals and dedicating less of its own energy to food matters, leaving time for its primary mission.

“We had spent a lot of energy trying to create a meal out of what the public had donated,” Richter says. “Now it’s completely reversed. It’s all structured. We know when the truck is going to arrive. The food issue is a lot easier to solve even though we are serving 30 percent more people than we were a year ago.”

Richter also praises Three Square’s rapidly expanding backpack program, in which needy children are given a backpack full of nutritious food each Friday so they have something to eat during the weekend. Low-income students are provided with free breakfast and lunch at school but in the past they often were going without on Saturdays and Sundays. Murray notes that 44.5 percent of Clark County schoolchildren — about 140,000 — are now eligible for free or reduced lunches.

Soon, Three Square will have summer vacations covered, too. The foundation grants will enable it to open a kitchen by June 1 to prepare meals for children during the summer. The meals will be made available at various parks and recreational sites.

What’s happening here is revolutionary by Las Vegas standards. When it comes to hunger, Las Vegas has discarded its usual piecemeal approach and done things right. “They are building the infrastructure to make sure no one goes hungry,” Richter says.

At least two other vital areas of social service — housing and health care — could benefit from this comprehensive and professional approach. Three Square’s success should serve as an inspiration to strengthen these and other pieces of the community’s safety net.

In the meantime, Three Square has its hands full as the recession creates a new batch of social service recipients. “The new faces of hunger are middle-class families who now are in dire straits with a lot of debt and no income because of lost jobs,” Murray says. “They are trying to navigate the social service system for the first time in their lives.”

On the hunger issue, at least, Las Vegas is prepared for the challenge.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday. Check out his blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/schumacher.

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