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With rising costs and expiring pandemic benefits, food banks face increased need

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

In the early days of the pandemic, food banks saw increased demands from Americans in need as unemployment exacerbated food insecurity. And now as food and gas prices rise and the pandemic benefits expire, many are experiencing another surge. Brooke Neubauer runs The Just One Project, which works to end hunger in Las Vegas. She is one of our American indicators, four people we turn to who work in different parts of the country in different sectors of the economy. When we spoke to her back in November, she described their no-cost community market.

BROOKE NEUBAUER: 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.

SNELL: We checked back in with her this week and she told us they're still serving more people than they did before the pandemic. And her organization is still facing some of the same pressures as her clients.

NEUBAUER: Those gas prices have really caused struggles with shipping and freight. So now our groceries that we're trying to purchase are more expensive due to that. And then also, too, just us being able to access those items are really hard. So we are not only paying over what we normally pay because of freight, but now we're not even able to get those items because of supply and chain issues.

SNELL: You know, cheaper food tends to be less nutritious. So how has this added to the struggle to make healthier food more accessible?

NEUBAUER: Well, if you are a single mom and you have four kids in the household, are you going to spend $20 on fruits and vegetables, or are you going to buy, say, 20 boxes of Rice-A-Roni for $0.99 each from the dollar store that could essentially feed all of your kids dinner for one night? Those are the choices that our clients have to make. We have diabetic clients that - they don't have access to nutritious groceries that are crucial for them being healthy and living a healthy lifestyle. And we have a client that shared with us, before she found out who we were, she was eating candy bars because she said she would choose the ones with nuts because it was her healthy protein because it was cheap. It was $0.50 per candy bar at the dollar store.

SNELL: That has to be a very hard story to hear, and I would imagine that puts a lot of pressure on you and your organization to fill those specific gaps. But I also understand it's hard to store food that is perishable. Those types of gaps that are existing right now are hard to fill for a food bank. How do you guys cope with that?

NEUBAUER: Stories like that sometimes keep me up at night. And it keeps me thinking about access and how else to be able to fill in those gaps, like the wraparound services that we're able to provide our clients. Sometimes our senior clients don't even know that they are eligible for extra support, SNAP benefits. And so it's really amazing when we're able to take a client and help them apply for money that they don't even know that they're missing, and then that helps them with their grocery budget.

SNELL: And I've got to ask. How are you and your team holding up? This is a lot of pressure.

NEUBAUER: Our team is incredibly client-centric. It's one of my proudest things about our team. To work at a nonprofit and to serve the community that we serve, you have to be - it has to run through your veins. You have to be passionate about serving. So for us, this is just a way of life.

SNELL: Brooke Neubauer is founder and CEO of The Just One Project in Las Vegas. Brooke, thanks for being here.

NEUBAUER: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.