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As food prices rise, non-profits try to keep serving clients

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've been following the pandemic recession and recovery through the lives of four people. They represent different parts of the country and different sectors of the economy. We're calling them our American indicators. And Brooke Neubauer is one of them. Her organization works to end hunger in Las Vegas. I spoke with her in April about a month after stimulus checks rolled out, and she told me she saw a change right away.

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BROOKE NEUBAUER: We typically serve over 17,000 people. And last month, just as an example, when the stimulus checks came out, we served 12,000.

SHAPIRO: But she was not convinced that it was anything more than a Band-Aid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NEUBAUER: If we could set up a plan and have multiple-year funding, I think that would give nonprofits an amazing chance to create sustainable programs that would actually help our communities long term.

SHAPIRO: Well, now food prices are at a 10-year high, and the holidays are here. So Brooke is back with us to update us on what she is seeing in Nevada. It's good to talk to you again, Brooke. Welcome.

NEUBAUER: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: How did the number of people you're serving, the number of clients you're feeding, look today compared with earlier in the pandemic?

NEUBAUER: In the peak of the pandemic, we were serving over 50,000 people a month. And then, of course, when the stimulus checks came out, we dropped a little bit below 15,000, and now we are serving 20,000 people a month again.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think that you are seeing less demand this year than the 50,000 you were seeing last year?

NEUBAUER: I think that because people have gone back to work, it has really helped them get back on their feet. They don't need the support that they did. You know, when our town was completely closed, there were so many people out of work that didn't even - they didn't have access to the food. They did not have a budget to support a grocery shopping bill.

SHAPIRO: Because Las Vegas is so tourism based and there was no tourism for a lot of the pandemic.

NEUBAUER: Yes, not only that, but you know, restaurant workers, the entertainment industry. We had so many entertainers that were unemployed, and for them, it's very hard for them to claim their income. So now you're talking about having zero income. It was - and it was harder for them to get on unemployment because it wasn't as documented.

SHAPIRO: Is the high price of food affecting people's ability to feed themselves and their families? And does it also affect your ability to provide for people given what you have to pay for food?

NEUBAUER: Sadly, I think that most of our clients couldn't afford fresh produce anyway pre-pandemic, let alone now when the prices are doubled. Now it's the food prices are affecting us way more because we're trying to continue to purchase it for our clients.

SHAPIRO: Give us a practical example of what that means. How does that play out for you?

NEUBAUER: So for us, we really focus - we have a no-cost community market, which we've opened in August of this year. And it looks just like a small bodega that you would shop at on the corner of, you know, any community city. We have so many wonderful rows of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, a wonderful dairy department, a meat poultry department, and it's really hard for us now.

NEUBAUER: We have to be really smart with what we're purchasing, and we have to figure out shipping costs. The freight cost is up 100%, so it's crazy. So for us, we could very easily just go to shelf-stable items and not have to worry about that. But our focus is always bringing in those fresh items that they're not able to purchase.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us a specific difficult decision you've had to make about buying one thing instead of another or a different amount than you would ordinarily buy?

NEUBAUER: We're just not getting the same buying power that we did, you know? So now we could have gotten a truckload of fresh produce and now, you know, we can potentially buy half a truckload, split the shipping with another organization and have half of the stuff that we would normally have. And so we're trying to get creative with freight.

SHAPIRO: If you've got half the stuff you would normally have, does that mean you can't serve as many people as you would normally feed?

NEUBAUER: We're really trying to make up the difference with food rescue. So we're really reaching out to a lot of community partners that have these fresh items that they might not end up using.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so like grocery stores that might think apples are bruised or something like that?

NEUBAUER: Yes, grocery stores, casinos. Casinos have so much turnover that, you know, they'll surprise us with, hey, we have a whole truckload of these fresh lunches. And, you know, they're lunches from the conferences that they're having. And it's kind of nice. I do feel like everything is kind of working out to where if we're not able to source it from a food company, things always come through at the end. I feel like the universe has our back.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about what the holidays typically mean for an organization like yours. Does demand tend to increase this time of year?

NEUBAUER: One thing that I feel like the holidays bring up is the awareness that a Thanksgiving meal is truly a luxury. Like, our clients have to choose, do I buy a turkey dinner for my family or do I put gas in my car? So being able to provide our clients with a delicious turkey dinner is such a great feeling.

SHAPIRO: Brooke Neubauer is founder and CEO of The Just One Project in Las Vegas. She is one of our American indicators. It's so good to talk to you again. Thank you.

NEUBAUER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.