Food bank fears a ‘new normal’
LAS VEGAS–Food insecurity in Nevada ranks among the most severe in the nation, and is on track to remain above pre-pandemic levels through 2021, according to a recent report from a national nonprofit network of food banks.
The spread of the novel coronavirus and the resulting economic recession ended years of declining rates of food insecurity across the country. In 2019 more than 35 million people, including 11 million children, were food insecure. By the end of 2021, Feeding America projects that 42 million people, including 13 million children, may experience food insecurity.
The Feeding America report also projects that in 2021, 15 million people, including 4 million children, may experience “very low” food security – a more severe range of food insecurity that involves reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns.
Nevada is ranked eighth among states with the highest projected overall food insecurity rates for 2021 at 15.2%, a slight improvement from 17% in 2020. Pre-pandemic levels in 2019 were at 12%.
Feeding America projects 6.2% of Nevadans will experience very low food security in 2021.
Nevada is also projected to have the nation’s fifth-highest percentage of children living in food-insecure households by the end of 2021 at 23% — a decrease from 26% in 2020, but still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. And Nevada is projected to have the second-highest rates of children in very low food security households in 2021 at 8.1%, beating out Oklahoma with a very low food security rate for children of 8.4%.
In Southern Nevada, Regis Whaley, Three Square’s director of business support, said while demand has decreased from its peak at the start of the state lockdown, it is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.
“We are starting to transition to the next step in all this. Is this the new normal going forward? Are we expecting prolonged periods of food insecurity? How much longer are we going to have to do the things we’ve done to keep up with demand?”
Feeding America’s annual study revealed there are 363,750 food-insecure individuals in Southern Nevada, a decrease of more than 76,000 people since last year when food insecurity peaked. The food insecurity rate across Three Square’s entire service area is now 16.3%, down from 20.1%.
Before the pandemic, the food insecurity rate in Southern Nevada was estimated to be 11.9%, or about 265,000 people. As a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, there has been a 37% increase in food insecurity in 2021.
The report also shows in Southern Nevada, one out of four children live in food-insecure households. That’s down from one out of three in 2020. Pre-pandemic an estimated 17.5%, or one in six children were living in food-insecure households.
Two of the main drivers of food insecurity are poverty and unemployment. Southern Nevada’s unemployment rate leads to greater food insecurity than other states.
Clark County, which has a workforce of 1.1 million, had a 9.3% jobless rate in February, compared with the national unemployment rate of 6.2%.
In March of this year, 20.6% of the state’s unemployed were in the Accommodation and Food Services industries, according to the Department of Employment, Rehabilitation and Training. While workers are returning, the Culinary union says only half its roughly 60,000 members have been called back to work.
“In Feeding America’s research if you look at the unemployment rate and its impact on food insecurity for every percentage point increase in unemployment there is about a 1.5 percentage point increase in food insecurity,” said Whaley. “The trends we’ve seen in unemployment have been largely predictive of the number of individuals coming to us seeking services. That change in unemployment for us is a real big shock and part of the danger of being so reliant on one industry for so much of our revenue.”
Three Square, the only food bank in Southern Nevada, is still providing about 5 million pounds of food a month, 25% more than pre-pandemic levels despite an increase in employment and additional federal benefits. Pre-pandemic Nevada was in line with the national average for food insecurity, said Whaley. The state now ranks among the most vulnerable states for high food insecurity.
During the Great Recession, there was an 89% increase in food insecurity in the state from pre-recession levels, and high demand lingered in Nevada for three years after the recession ended for the rest of the country. Whether Nevada’s emergence from the current the pandemic-induced economic upheaval will follow a similar pattern is a “wait and see game,” said Whaley.
Federal assistance, including direct payments and extended unemployment benefits, are welcome, but will also ultimately run out.
“We’re waiting to see what the actual recovery looks like in Southern Nevada for food insecurity. When we look at the recession it was kind of terrifying to be blunt,” Whaley said. “What we’re watching at the food bank is what that recovery actually looks like for Southern Nevada. Is everything really going to be okay once casinos open back up?”