LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – As far as UNLV students go, she was older, in her 30s. McKenzie Mayor remembers sensing despair. The woman likely had lost her job, money was tight, Mayor thought.

“And I was pretty sure she didn’t have anyone else she could depend on, like parents or family,” says Mayor, coordinator of the UNLV Food Pantry.

So when the woman learned she could get food free from the university’s pantry, Mayor could almost feel the anguish lifting.

“She was so relieved, so grateful,” Mayor remembers.

Offering such relief is what keeps Mayor going and what’s behind the school’s pantry, located a short walk from the Thomas & Mack Center, on the corner of South University Drive and East Naples Drive.

When it moved two years ago from a spot on the Paradise campus to its own building, a former convenience store with roughly 2,000 square feet of space, the pantry was serving maybe 100 to 200 clients monthly, Mayor says. But the pandemic and rising food costs have increased that number closer to 1,000.

“We serve mostly students, about 70% of our food goes to them, and the rest is university employees,” Mayor says.

Free food fuels the body, of course. But Mayor says it also salves a mental burden. Many students and university employees work part-time, she finds, and visits to the pantry mean less stretching of the dollar.

The pantry is one of about 170 agencies of Three Square, Southern Nevada’s lone food bank. Regis Whaley, Three Square’s director of advocacy and research, says studies show pantries like the one at UNLV provide a vital source of community support. Especially during the last two years or so, with the pandemic and inflation driving up the cost of food.

“When you look at the impact, you first have to look at the food insecurity of the area around UNLV,” he says. “There’s a certain level of poverty, a diverse population. In that situation, the pantry is a big factor of influence.”

Leslie Carmine, director of media relations for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, agrees. Her agency’s pantry, Helping Hands of Hope, says such community services “lift the spirits of people.”

Catholic Charities has been providing food in Southern Nevada through a pantry since 1941, and over that time Carmine says demand mostly is driven by a common factor – struggling households.

“A pantry is meant to be a hand-up for people who need a little bit of assistance,” Carmine says. “A lot of our people are working, but their hours are cut or they’ve taken in a family member, and they look to the community for some support.

“A food pantry visit, where they can take some food at no cost, it’s such a help.” 

Pantry clients at UNLV are limited to one visit each week when they register showing valid university identification – there’s no need to provide any financial information – and their food choices are based on supply. During the middle of September, selections included two packages of grains, like pasta and rice, two of fruits and vegetables, three of proteins and three miscellaneous items, including pancake/waffle mix, syrup, cans of tomato sauce and hot cocoa mix.

When there’s meat, it is often frozen chicken or ground beef, Mayor says.

The UNLV pantry purchases about 60% of its food from Three Square, with the rest coming from donations and grants. Support also comes from school organizations, including the Consolidated Students of UNLV, the Graduate & Professional Student Association and the School of Integrated Health Sciences. The pantry also is getting some food donations from metro Target stores, Mayor says.

As she’s praising the generosity of donors and school groups, a man and his wife interrupt, offering a supply of Ensure, the adult nutritional drink.

“My brother recently died,” the man tells Mayor, “and he was using Ensure. We have some boxes. Never opened. Brand new. Can you use them?”

Mayor is thankful as she pulls a dolly cart from a corner so a volunteer can help load the boxes.

That donation is followed by a delivery of veggies, including lettuce bowls, onions and carrots, freshly picked from the garden at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

“Everyone likes fresh lettuce,” Mayor says as she stacks bowls on a cooler shelf.

Mayor, 25, says she never experienced food insecurity growing up. She’s an only child from a middle-income household who graduated from Coronado High School in Henderson and went to UNLV with the idea of being a chef.

“I’ve always had a love for food,” Mayor says. “When I came to UNLV I learned about people struggling to put food on the their tables … and seeing that it can happen to anyone …” The experience made her shift gears a little; she’s now a registered dietician, a graduate of the UNLV’s School of Nutrition Sciences.

Mayor has been involved in the pantry’s operation for a little more than five years; it’s been around since about 2010. She was a volunteer then an employee and became its coordinator, supervising six part-time workers and several volunteers, two years ago, when it landed in the former convenience store. She’s also supervising a monthly farmers market in the parking lot of the campus’ Stan Fulton Building, The market is on the second Saturday of each month for the University District community; no need to be a part of the school to get food.

She welcomes any publicity, any way to get the word out that the pantry is there, fulfilling a need.

“Personally, it’s gratifying to know that you have an opportunity, a way to help,” she says.