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How The Pandemic Recession Is Affecting Food Insecurity In The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Brooke Neubauer used to do small-scale community service projects in Nevada. She'd collect donations of toys or clothes, organize a bunch of volunteers and then hand stuff out in needy communities around Las Vegas. About six years ago, after a Christmas toy drive, she got a call from Del Monte.

BROOKE NEUBAUER: It was 25,000 pounds of fresh fruit.

SHAPIRO: They said, you want it, you have to pick it up by tomorrow morning - in California. She found a volunteer with a trucking company.

NEUBAUER: So within 24 hours of actually getting the call, we were in that same community. But instead of Christmas gifts, now we had fruit. And it was the freshest, most delicious. It was mangoes. It was pineapples. The children kept referring to the pineapple as SpongeBob's house. They didn't even know that it was an actual fruit. And the mothers were very emotional. And so I spoke to one of the moms who was crying, and I asked her, you know, if you could share your feelings, you know, what's going through your mind right now? And she just said, my children never get this quality of food. They don't get fruit.

SHAPIRO: That experience led Brooke Neubauer to focus on hunger in her home state. And now the organization she founded, The Just One Project, is the largest mobile food pantry in the state of Nevada.

NEUBAUER: Every month we have 13 locations to access food, and we distribute about 17,000 people in three hours.

SHAPIRO: All this week, we're meeting people who reflect different parts of the U.S. economy, from hospitality to manufacturing to housing. We'll follow them over time to see what the recovery from this pandemic recession looks like from where they stand. And so Brooke Neubauer in Las Vegas is our fourth and final American indicator.

Tell me about the change that you have seen since the pandemic hit.

NEUBAUER: So for 2020, we served 386,000 people. Compared to what we served in 2018 - it was 162,000. And now it's a different animal because now you have people from all walks of life. So now you have people that are - that were casino executives in our line. So...

SHAPIRO: Executives - not just people who were doing, you know, housekeeping at casinos, but executives.

NEUBAUER: Absolutely. We have so many people from different walks of life. There's so much need right now. I always used to tell people anyway that hunger has no face, and now that's as real as ever.

SHAPIRO: Food pantries across the country are seeing the same thing. The organization Feeding America says it has seen a 60% average increase in demand during the pandemic. And about 40% of the people showing up these days have never needed help before.

SHARI: Hi, hon. My name is Shari. I'm 78 years old.

SHAPIRO: We're only using her first name because she has experienced identity theft and wants to be cautious. She's retired after a career working as a medical technician at hospitals and raising kids as a single mom. She says her experience at The Just One Project these days is very different from her first visit two years ago.

SHARI: You would show up for your appointment, let's say, 9 o'clock, and you'd go in, and within 10 minutes everything was taken care of, and you left. Now there are so many people out of work, so many people with families hungry and needing some type of help, that you have to get there sometimes two hours before your appointment to get in this long line of cars.

SHAPIRO: Her grandson in Las Vegas got laid off from his job as a locksmith.

SHARI: And he's a hard worker when he's working, but he's been laid off twice now in this pandemic.

SHAPIRO: So now she sometimes takes her 3-year-old great-granddaughter with her to get food.

SHARI: It has become even more important that when my great-granddaughter is hungry, I can go to the pantry and say, hon, what would you like for lunch, or what can I fix you for breakfast?

SHAPIRO: How much does your great-granddaughter understand? I know she's 3 years old, which is kind of just on the cusp.

SHARI: Thank God, nothing. She is bubbly and bright. She has no idea what we're going through. And I hope she never does. But if this goes on for another year, yes, she probably will know.

SHAPIRO: Last month, 11% of American adults said they went hungry in the previous week, according to the Census Household Pulse survey. That's 24 million hungry Americans.

SHARI: There's got to be something. There's got to be a way to help these people. It's hard because you can't see an end to it.

SHAPIRO: Sheree says when she looks to the future, she hopes things change so she'll be able to help other people again, instead of depending on strangers to help her. I asked Brooke Neubauer what she thinks this says about American society right now.

Does it make you nervous about the fabric of society and the strength of the safety net?

NEUBAUER: I think that we are going to take so many years to recover. I think that that's the hardest thing. You know, for me, we're really focusing on sustainability so that we can be here for the community for a long term because I know that the people that are in our lines right now - they might be with us for a very long time to come.

SHAPIRO: That's Brooke Neubauer, founder of The Just One Project in Las Vegas. She's one of our American indicators. All of them will be helping us to tell the story of the U.S. economy this year as it tries to come back from the worst recession in a century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.