A cascade of event cancellations, travel restrictions and school closures as the coronavirus pandemic picks up in the U.S. is prompting some fundamental questions — including whether there will be enough food to go around.
Nonprofits such as Three Square, which provides meals to scores of food pantries in Southern Nevada, say they’re ready to step in the gap for families who experience layoffs or otherwise struggle to find what they need at the store in the wake of the outbreak. To date, they haven’t seen a drop in donations or an increase in demand, but they expect the ripple effect to come.
“Whenever we suffer an economic event, there's usually a several week lag, but it's always imminent. The demand increases,” Larry Scott, chief operating officer at Three Square, said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Unfortunately, many people in our community live not only paycheck to paycheck, but sometimes meal to meal. So when they have any disruption at all, it can affect their ability to provide for the next meal.”
The consequences of coronavirus could be significant if schools close — that hasn’t yet happened at any large scale in the state — and children are unable to take advantage of school meal programs. About 300,000 Nevada children are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch, and Scott said Three Square provides 15,000 boxed lunches in the Clark County School District every day.
“We are in pretty steady contact with the Clark County School District,” Scott said. “We very much understand how critically important those are. And so, yes, we have a game plan for what the alternatives would be if the schools were closed, including delivering meals through other recreational sites, churches and libraries.”
Another potential threat to food security is trouble getting food from its source to the store. Already, stories of toilet paper and non-perishable food items flying from shelves are rampant.
Bryan Wachter of the Retail Association of Nevada said his organization is “very concerned about disruptions to the supply chain.” He said trouble began as early as December with halts in supplies from China, where COVID-19 first struck, but stores are now seeing disruptions at the end of the supply chain in terms of keeping product on shelves.
Wachter acknowledges that people buying store-bought goods in bulk to prepare for the spread of COVID-19 are “people that are very anxious and nervous about a situation that many don’t understand.”
He suggests people refrain from buying a supply of goods that will last for months and instead focus on buying supplies needed only for about 14 days, the average length of a quarantine period. That way, he said, consumers can ensure there are more supplies and goods to meet everyone’s needs.
Wachter said stores should not have to close if Nevada’s government has “an adequate response” in ensuring the supply chain to continue operating. Wachter said it will be important to work with state leaders moving forward to ensure unnecessary disruptions will be avoided, such as truck drivers being able to continue to transport cargo in case of any work requirement restrictions issued by the government.
Government help may also be on the way from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which supplies the food for about 14 million of the 43 million meals Three Square provides each year. While the USDA hasn’t increased shipments at this point, Scott said the agency has been relaxing some of the restrictions on who is allowed to distribute that so-called “commodity” food.
Currently, about a quarter of Three Square’s food distribution partners are authorized to provide commodities, but the loosening of restrictions could allow more of those supplies to flow to those in need.
“At USDA, we are working to ensure children who are affected by school closures continue to get fed,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement on Thursday. “We intend to use all available program flexibilities and contingencies to serve those affected by the outbreak.”
Meanwhile, Three Square is offering up its services to those in need. Scott noted that people can look up on its website the many locations where they can drop by to pick up groceries no questions asked and regardless of their income. Seniors and others who have trouble leaving their homes to access food can also contact Three Square for help.
Three Square says Southern Nevada has a need for 47 million meals a year, and the organization expects to close the gap in the next two or three years. But Scott acknowledged that if the fallout from coronavirus is dramatic and the need grows substantially, it could put the food bank much further back from its goal.
“The wild card that both you and I understand is none of us have any idea of the depth of how far this may go,” Scott said. But, “I'm satisfied that we have all of the tools and all of the infrastructure in place to meet the need.”