The pandemic's economic toll has left many in the Mountain West struggling to feed their families. In fact, Nevada and New Mexico have some of the highest rates of child food insecurity in the country, according to a report published last fall by the nonprofit Feeding America.
Emily Engelhard, the director of research at Feeding America, says two main factors are driving food insecurity across the region.
“One is that we are seeing the areas that historically have had the highest levels of food insecurity continue to have the highest levels of food insecurity,” she says – especially among people of color. And the second factor, Engelhard explains, is the tourism and service industries have been disproportionately affected, and those industries employ more people of color.
Food banks have become an increasingly critical source of food for families.
In Casper, Wyo. Mary Ann Budenske heads the Poverty Resistance Food Pantry. She started the organization in 1987 with five other women. Today, she runs the pantry herself and even uses her own cell phone as the organization's primary phone.
William Sels, who goes by Big Bill, is a frequent customer who says on good days, the pantry has fresh fruits and veggies and even hamburger meat available, but he's not always so lucky.
“Sometimes you get the onions,” Big Bill says, “and I guarantee you I've made onion soup many times for dinner and my little boy loves it because he'll grab my hand and say, ‘I'm just thankful you're here.’ ”
At the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, Jocelyn Lantrip says they've seen hundreds of new faces. But those families come in addition to the substantial number who were already in need.
“Our low-income neighbors had not recovered from the recession,” Lantrip says. “We had significant issues with people who are working full-time jobs and still couldn't pay their bills. What we saw was higher rents, higher expenses, incomes not really matching those expenses in our area.”
In that sense, the pandemic is exposing communities that have long struggled with chronic food insecurity, such as the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada.
Amber Torres, the tribe's chairwoman, explains that the reservation is a food desert. The nearest grocery store is nearly 30 miles away from the tribe's offices in Schurz. The nearest Costco is two hours away in Reno. “Access is a huge barrier for us here on the reservation,” Torres says.
When the pandemic first hit, the state supplied food boxes to those in need on the reservation. Then the tribal council partnered with the Northern Nevada food bank to, as Torres explains, “get our own food pantry established here on reservation because we definitely know that the pandemic isn't going away.”
The tribe also tapped into federal CARES funding to establish a food sovereignty program, which grows and promotes fresh and traditional foods. Gardens and year-round hoop houses are growing everything from apples to cucumbers and peppers.
Torres says she immediately saw the impacts of the new food pantry and the gardens.
“We saw that there was a true need across the board,” she says. “Even with these families that have two-income homes, it was still something that was supplemental and really helps their families as well. Especially because you can go shopping for a small time frame, but that runs out during the week, and I don't want to put it like this, but you're SOL.”
The tribe is also working with other community groups like the local Boys and Girls Club, which is helping to identify families with children so that the kids can get snacks when the families are visiting the reservation's new food pantry.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.