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August 21, 2014

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Q&A: Three Square Food Bank CEO Brian Burton:

The face of hunger in Nevada is different’

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Sam Morris

Three Square food bank CEO Brian Burton

Like a kid obsessed with his Christmas wish list, the Three Square Food Bank in North Las Vegas has been planning all year long for the holidays.

The food bank, which was founded in 2006 and serves Clark, Lincoln, Nye and Esmeralda counties, has been searching for the best deals on turkeys and other holiday staples since the 2012 holiday season ended. This year it plans to bring in 12,000 turkeys, which will be distributed through the 600 partner agencies in the community that receive food from Three Square’s 120,000-square-foot warehouse to the people in need of assistance.

“We shop the market and try and seize the opportunities when they come because we need to stretch every dollar as far as it will go,” Three Square CEO Brian Burton said. “We’ve been planning for the holidays all year. Now there are a lot of food drives going on right now, and it’s wonderful … but hunger is not seasonal. It does not take a vacation. We want people to remember us in January, February and March, and not only this time of year.”

Founded in 2006 with large donations from Eric Hilton of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Three Square is now transitioning out of an early period of infrastructure building through large corporate donations into a model based more on smaller donations from more contributors.

Food insecurity has been a stubborn problem for Nevada, Burton said, because the recovery from the deep hits of the recession has been slow.

“(Food insecurity) is basically a broad term for people who struggle putting enough food on the table each month; that’s it in very simple terms,” Burton said.

About 340,000 people, or 16 percent of the population, in Southern Nevada are considered food insecure.

Three Square is always seeking ways to stretch each dollar further, especially with recent reductions in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Each month the food bank serves 100,000 people, 40 percent children, through its partners.

The agency always welcomes volunteers for its variety of programs, including backpacks full of food that go home with school kids on the weekends, food sorting for the community agencies and packing special food boxes for seniors.

The Sun sat down with Burton to discuss the cuts in benefits, hunger in Nevada and how the community can help during the holiday season and moving forward.

How are we trending in Nevada in terms of nutrition and hunger?

Food insecurity is a nationwide problem. Here it is high because it’s directly correlated with unemployment and also the foreclosure crisis. The face of hunger in Nevada is different. Many places in the country, it is generational poverty. It is people who have been on welfare or needing public assistance, or disabled folks who can’t work. In Nevada, it is formerly middle-class people. Eighty percent of the people were working before they went on SNAP or food stamps. And they’re only on it for about seven to 10 months. That’s a stereotype that a lot of people have of folks being on it their whole lives. … They’re doing what we want them to do, but they have been victims of the housing catastrophe here and the high unemployment. They found themselves in a predicament they never imagined they would be in.

How have the cuts to SNAP affected the community?

It’s serious. Nov. 1 was the start of a $36-a-month cut for a family of four. So that’s two to three days’ worth of meals. They cut it down now to $1.40 per person, per meal. So, go live it up. … These benefits are so meager, and I don’t know how people make it.

Mayor (Carolyn) Goodman experimented on living on a food stamp budget last January and it was very difficult. A lot of people who tried that were getting hunger headaches, feeling light-headed, they realized they couldn’t buy any meat. They would go to the store and buy just cheap staples and food that would fill them up.

We in the charitable sector only meet about 20 percent of the need of food-insecure people. Eighty percent is met by some sort of federal nutrition program. People are usually surprised when I say that because I think they assume we are meeting most of the need.

That’s why we get very anxious and concerned when Congress can’t agree on a farm bill and they are breaking out SNAP and threatening to grant that out directly to states. It would be a total and utter disaster if they disembowel that program because we would have hunger on an unprecedented scale. It would be economically foolish to make deep cuts in the programs that are feeding people who cant find jobs. It’s not only morally unacceptable, I think it’s economically suicidal to go down that path.

What is the holiday season like for the food bank and the food insecure?

We love people who catch the (volunteer) bug during the holiday season because we can certainly use more help. Our agency partners could use the help. We do tend to see more people come in during the holidays, and I think that’s because … well, this year because SNAP benefits were cut. But even in a more normal year, there’s just more stress during the holidays. There’s more company, there’s more people in transition. A lot of employers will do cutbacks in hours during the holidays. Kids aren’t in school, so they are eating at home. So you have a lot of stress on families during the holidays that creates higher need.

Describe what you do for people who aren’t familiar with food banks.

We are more like the Federal Express distribution center. We source all of the food out of California, Utah, Arizona, and we bring it here very efficiently. For pennies on the dollar we are able to stock Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, all of these churches, and then they in turn can feed way more people. Then they can divert those saved monies into educational programs that change lives. So, some people don’t have an accurate mental picture of what a food bank is. The 600 program partners, that’s where the action is. That’s where lives are changed. Those are the heroes.

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