Reno mobile food pantry steps in amid rising prices, inflation
At 8 a.m. on a sunny, mid-October Saturday, volunteers for The Community Food Pantry mobile program gather outside the Ponderosa Hotel — a motel in the heart of Reno used by some people as their permanent residence — and start giving out food.
Volunteers ask clients what they are in the mood for on this distribution day, and hand out boxes of fresh produce, milk, cottage cheese, Swedish Fish and hot dogs. Some motel residents get food for people who can’t come down themselves; others pick up packages as they rush to get to work.
Not only do volunteers visit motels every first and third Saturday of the month, they deliver food to senior living facilities on the second and fourth Saturdays as well. The Community Food Pantry sees its mission as not just providing food, but also a way for people to connect.
“Social isolation for seniors and all people is, I think, one of our biggest societal concerns right now,” said Elyse Monroy-Marsala, a volunteer for the pantry who sits on its board of directors. “And when people are living in situations like this one here at the Ponderosa …there's a sense of community that I don't think we appreciate.”
What started as a closet inside St. Paul's Episcopal Church 30 years ago has now evolved into a full-fledged nonprofit that complements larger entities such as the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. Their goal? To fight hunger in the growing and increasingly expensive Reno-Sparks region.
The personalized food deliveries have been lifesaving for some; for others, they help fill in gaps when a paycheck doesn't go far enough or when government benefits drop off, like when tens of thousands of Nevadans lost their pandemic-era temporary benefits.
Monroy-Marsala said weekly motel residents often check in on one another and build relationships with the volunteers as well, a practice that can be life-saving.
“John [a food service client] had gotten unhooked from his oxygen for a long time,” she said. “He was really disoriented and … turning gray. And it was not good.”
Volunteers who had previously checked in on John during distribution day found him and reconnected his oxygen, staying with him until he recovered.
“We saved his life,” Monroy-Marsala said.
After wrapping up at the Ponderosa Hotel, volunteers loaded food into their truck and made their way to the Easy Inn Motel, a weekly located near the Reno-Sparks border and the Cares Campus, the region’s largest homeless shelter.
Easy Inn Motel residents include seniors on fixed incomes, people with day jobs and those trying to integrate back into society after being released from prison.
In October, several residents said they were preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving together, with turkey and other food provided by The Community Food Pantry.
One volunteer is a particular favorite of the Easy Inn Motel residents — Linda Devon, who also runs Laundry Love, a laundry service in Reno that serves low and no income families.
“Whenever she goes on vacation I cover for her, and the Seniors ALWAYS ask about her…. ‘Where is Linda? When will she be back? ….well Did she go somewhere tropical?’” Monroy-Marsala wrote in an email.
The community connection is not only important for the pantry clients, but for volunteers as well.
“When they get sick, we're like ‘Where are they?’ When they pass away, we feel it,” Monroy-Marsala said.
Where the Community Food Pantry started
In the late 2000s, the neighborhood around St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its food closet boomed. To meet the need of the growing population of Sparks and Reno — which collectively increased by 22 percent, or about 68,000 people, from 2008 to 2022 — the pantry saw a need to begin officially fundraising. The pantry transitioned from a ministry of the church to an independent nonprofit in 2008.
The pantry’s mobile program began in 2018 after receiving a grant from the state’s Aging and Disability Services Division to purchase a truck. The mobile program became a community partner with the food pantry, even though they are technically separate entities.
The Community Food Pantry projects it will have fed around 65,000 people in the first 10 months of 2023, with 35 percent of those receiving food assistance being over 65 years old and 17 percent under 18 years old.
As of Nov. 9, the mobile service has served nearly 6,600 people living in weekly motels and senior living centers so far in 2023.
Monroy-Marsala said the economy has changed since the mobile program started. As people deal with rising rents, inflation and expiring COVID-19 federal aid programs, they are cutting costs where they can, starting with their grocery budget.
When the program started, Monroy-Marsala said volunteers typically served people who could not work. That’s no longer the case.
“It was interesting to me this morning to hear two people come to the line [at the Ponderosa] and say they were running late for work,” she said.
One client told Monroy-Marsala they were struggling to qualify for Medicaid because they made too much money. Nevadans qualify for Medicaid if they earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is nearly $20,000 a year for a one-person household, or a bit more than $10 an hour.
“I definitely make more than $15 an hour, and I'm having a hard time making it,” said Monroy-Marsala, who is a lobbyist.
Greg, who works at a nearby gas station, is a resident at the Easy Inn Motel. He appreciates that the pantry brings him food because he doesn’t have reliable transportation to easily go grocery shopping with his hectic work schedule. To maintain his privacy, Greg requested that his last name not be published. He’s grateful for the meats and vegetables, which he picks up every few weeks.
“I work a lot, but I still don't have enough time to go to the store or nothing,” Greg said. “I haven’t had a car in five years.”
The cost of living has risen dramatically not just in Reno, but throughout Nevada, in the five years since the pantry began mobile operations. In 2018, the average rent in Reno was $1,318. Seven years later, rent prices have increased almost 13 percent to $1,510 a month, according to the Nevada State Apartment Association.
In Southern Nevada, the average rent in 2023 is about $1,430 a month, according to the Nevada Apartment Association. That's a 28 percent increase compared to 2018’s price of about $1,032 a month.
Several federal assistance and housing protection programs adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic expired at the beginning of 2023. This includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) emergency allotments, an expanded monthly stipend for those with low incomes to spend on food, which expired in March.
Now, more people are relying on services such as The Community Food Pantry to stay afloat.
“Food is so expensive, man,” said John, an Easy Inn resident who relies on food stamps. “It's hard to survive out here on the streets.”
Updated at 12:31 p.m. on 11/27/2023 to reflect the day when The Community Food Pantry mobile service volunteers deliver to motel residents and when they provide food for residents of senior living facilities.
Updated at 11:22 a.m. on 11/28/23 to clarify the average cost of an apartment in 2018.