On a chilly Christmas Eve morning, Julie Murray, the CEO of Three Square Food Bank, and her staff were on the job well before 8 a.m., readying their giant warehouse for its daily ritual—when dozens of reps from the city’s nonprofit agencies come to pick up food they’ve ordered.
It promises to be a busy morning, but if anyone seems comfortable with being busy, it is Murray, 48. Just a few weeks ago she returned from Washington, D.C., where she appeared before Congress about to talk about hunger issues—the only food-bank official in the country asked to testify. “Never did we imagine we would have to brace for the worst downturn in the economy,” she says.
In a red blazer and pants and a floral scarf, Murray looks likes a natural leader, though she didn’t expect to find herself here. Her passion had always been at-risk youth. She started the I Have a Dream Foundation in 1994 and also spent five years as the national campaign director at Andre Agassi Preparatory Academy. The lifelong Las Vegan, like most of us, had given little thought to the subject of hunger.
Three Square has its roots in a 2004-2006 study commissioned by Eric Hilton, son of Conrad Hilton, to determine whether there was enough leftover food on the Strip to combat hunger. Surprisingly, in a town known for its wastefulness, the study found that big casinos were pretty tight with their food supplies and there wasn’t much extra to go around—and health codes were also strict about how long food could sit out before it had to be dumped.
Hilton and others, including Punam Mather, a senior VP at MGM-Mirage, had been part of a group meeting to discuss hunger. When the study pointed to the growing hunger problems in the Valley, they asked Murray to lead an initiative to respond. Murray was happy at the Agassi school, but when she realized children were being most impacted by lack of food, she signed on.
“I never knew how big a challenge hunger is,” she notes. So Murray started Three Square in her dining room in September 2006, and operated there for a year and a month until the county gifted the food bank a $4.9 million facility at the northern reaches of North Las Vegas, near I-15 and Craig, at the end of last year. The Hilton Foundation provided seed money to help start the food bank.
In one year, Three Square has gotten off to an amazing start, distributing 10.3 million pounds of food, a feat which usually takes a decade or more. (As a point of comparison: A food bank in Detroit that’s been operating for decades and serves a much larger metropolitan area served 11.5 million pounds last year.) Three Square distributes food—which it purchases from other food banks and receives in donations from individuals and companies—to 211 nonprofit agencies and churches across the Valley.
Three Square is like the nonprofit version of a Strip casino—proudly expanding before the paint has dried on its initial building. In this case, the food bank is already renovating a 70,000-square-foot warehouse adjacent to its 50,000-square-foot facility. The new space will be ready by summer. The organization plans to distribute 16 million pounds of food next year.
Murray and her staff of 45 have also started a backpack program that provides food for the weekend for kids in the Clark County School District who aren’t getting enough to eat. The program started with 10 schools this spring and has ramped up to 120. During the 2006-2007 school year, 42.5 percent of kids were on the school district’s free or reduced meals program. “What the superintendent is telling us, and what we’re seeing is, it’s going to be over 50 percent by the end of this school year,” she says.
The board has raised the budget for next year from $4 million to $8 million, and plans to increase its food distribution from 10 million pounds to 17 million. Murray notes that there are approximately 210,000 men, women and children in poverty in the Valley. To sustain a person at the poverty level requires 234 pounds of food a year—so the Valley needs more than 49 million pounds of food to address its hunger needs.
Promptly at 8 the warehouse doors creak open and a battery of people, bins at the ready, swiftly and methodically swarm into the food bank. In addition to picking up orders for food, they can also stock up on free items near the warehouse doors, which contain fresh meat and bread. The shelves up front are picked cleaned within 10 minutes or so. As they wait in line, the nonprofit reps say that the hungry these days are looking more and more like the rest of us: middle-class, “regular” people who’ve always been employed and are suddenly finding themselves in the food lines for the first time in their lives.
“We see a lot of people in good health and good shape who have needs,” says Anyika Kamal, with Al-Maun, a nonprofit group in west Las Vegas. They come to Three Square to purchase food about three times a week.
Murray chats up the customers amiably, while simultaneously juggling an interview with me. “I never met someone who’s so passionate in my life,” says Ted Taylor, Three Square’s vice president of development and marketing. Despite her 14-hour-a-day schedule, there’s nothing frayed about her at all. In fact she seems like a born hunger evangelist. “Even after two years I wake up and think, ‘What are we going to do today?’”