Diana Bennett & Kris Engelstad-McGarry Continue Philanthropic Legacies

SAY THE NAME THREE SQUARE to someone and, chances are, he or she knows of the Southern Nevada food bank and its growing impact on hungry families in Las Vegas. With a threefold mission of warehousing, securing unused food and distributing ready-to-eat meals, the nonprofit enjoys favored status among charitable givers. While Three Square’s profile rises every year, last month’s unveiling of the Bag Childhood Hunger initiative doesn’t just expand the group’s aims—It brings full-circle the philanthropic energies of the Bennett and Engelstad families.

A second-generation Las Vegas casino operator, Diana Bennett is the daughter of industry legend William Bennett. A widely acknowledged gaming systems expert, she is currently the chief executive officer of Paragon Gaming—Western Canada’s biggest gaming resort company—but she remains a loyal Las Vegan. Evidence lies in her presence on many boards, including UNLV Foundation, Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and The Smith Center, to name a few. Now Bennett also serves as president of the board of directors for Three Square food bank and her resolve to combat hunger is passionate, strategic.

She vividly remembers being drawn into the battle through her volunteerism at Three Square. After past President Julie Murray saw that Bennett was smitten with the group’s goals, the Paragon executive was invited to serve as a board member.

“I first got involved with the backpack program,” says Bennett of Three Square’s partnership with the Clark County School District for which it provides bags of shelf-stable food to children who lack adequate sustenance on the weekend. “I wanted to see how the backpacks ended up in children’s hands and what impact they had.”

Visiting Harley Harmon Elementary School affected her profoundly. Bennett recognized that the problem of child homelessness in Las Vegas was larger than she had realized. Harley Harmon remains a school with a staggering percentage of children qualifying as homeless. Washers and dryers are provided on the campus, so that students can clean their own clothes. Showers are open for kids to stay hygienic, a challenge for many whom live in cars or trucks, or who co-inhabit a home with three or more families. After interviewing the students firsthand, Bennett discovered how invaluable Three Square’s efforts were on the food front.

“I asked one little girl what she liked and didn’t like about the backpacks,” recalls Bennett. “And she said to me, ‘Well, I like the white milk for my cereal, because mama says cereal with milk is too expensive. My baby brother, who’s not in school yet, loves the chocolate milk, so I give him the chocolate milk. My grandma loves fruit bars, so I give the bars to grandma. Nobody likes the beef stew. But we don’t always have dog food, so our dog gets the stew.’”

Bennett will never forget these accounts. While Three Square’s mission is to provide wholesome food to hungry people, while passionately pursuing a hunger-free community, she never imagined that one Three Square food bag, nutritionally sound and designed for a single child, was regularly being distributed amongst entire families—including, in the girl’s example, the family pet. Sometimes a bag even reached into multiple families.

“It breaks your heart,” says Bennett, “to comprehend the enormity of the problem, which is that we are feeding entire households with just a single bag of food.”

Three Square’s BackPack for Kids Program currently assists more than 275 schools, with up to 5,000 children receiving supplemental weekend meals each week. Bennett credits the school district with being inventive in distributing backpacks. Everyone—teachers, classmates, parents—is involved. As a result, students taking food home don’t feel ostracized or embarrassed. She hopes to encourage Clark County to also implement garden-building and food-growing programs. After all, she says, hunger isn’t always the face of a thin child. The childhood-obesity epidemic, for instance, is a symptom of parents seeking out cheap, processed fare. In response, Three Square started its own tomato-sprouting, herbs-flourishing garden in, of all places, a parking lot near its facility.

“We offer programs showing young mothers how to get a bag of beans and—with hamburger or greens—season it well so that it feeds your family for a long time,” says Bennett. “There are many ways to feed your family nutritionally, and that’s part of Three Square’s mission: to educate parents on the fact that nutritional food can also be inexpensive. It doesn’t have to be McDonald’s five days a week.”

For the moment, though, Bennett is focused on Three Square’s Bag Childhood Hunger initiative. She is supported in this endeavor by longtime friend of the family Kris Engelstad McGarry. Engelstad McGarry is herself a daughter of an industry icon, Ralph Engelstad, whose Las Vegas legacy included the Imperial Palace. As executor of Engelstad’s philanthropic fund, she has given tens of millions to local causes—Opportunity Village, HELP of Southern Nevada and, of course, Three Square.

Giving to the latter nonprofit stems from what she sees from those managing it.

“If you give them a dollar, they’ll make two dollars out of it,” says Engelstad McGarry, who, like Bennett, grew up in Las Vegas. “That’s what they do.”

She says Three Square’s focus at this point isn’t just on the amount spent per child and per bagged lunch. The group also is working hard to see how to make the food more nutritious for the same or even less money.

“Three Square is always reinventing itself and constantly considering new ways to get food to kids—without Cheetos,” says Engelstad McGarry. “They’re learning from bigger, more established food banks around the U.S. They’re learning that the bigger you are, the more access you have. They’re seeing how efficient things can be.”

As proof of Three Square’s strive for innovation, Engelstad McGarry cites the real possibility of mobile trucks—or satellite food pantries—at schools most seriously at risk, where 100 percent of students are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program to receive free or reduced-price school meals.

When Engelstad McGarry looks in the faces of these children, she doesn’t see hungry strangers. She sees her own father who grew up poor in North Dakota; who couldn’t afford a bicycle or shoes for school; who, as a kid, sold chickens.

“That really stuck with him for a long time,” she says. “He realized that being hungry is just the way it is. Hunger doesn’t happen because anyone’s bad.”

Like many philanthropists, Engelstad McGarry is struck by the growing chasm in this country between people who are fortunate and people who are not. When she packs food into a bag at Three Square, examining what needs to last these children for a period of time, she marvels at their ability to make things stretch and is in awe of how smart parents are. She imagines being in their shoes and doubts she could be as savvy in feeding her own family on a shoestring.

“When I go home and see my kids, I think to myself, ‘You are luckier than you know. You just happened to be born into a different family. But there’s nothing any more special about us compared to anyone else.’”

There is, though, a very special bond between the Engelstad and Bennett daughters. Their fathers were best of friends, dying within months of each other in 2002. They often had discussed doing foundation work together, but it never fleshed out.

“Diana’s and my Three Square efforts mark the full circle of our dads’ philanthropic goals,” says Engelstad McGarry. “Diana and I speak about it often: What would they think about where their daughters have taken things? They would be so happy.”

Thinking of their fathers and the philanthropic community in Las Vegas, Bennett adds, “In many ways, this is still a small town. In the old days, you could call a casino and the money you needed was there. It’s not like that anymore. You have to reach beyond that, but it’s a good thing. People are more willing now to get involved if you reach out. That’s what we’re really pushing at Three Square. If we instill in our youngest a responsibility to give today, they’ll give for the rest of their lives.”

The giving is certainly there. In May, Fashion for Three Square, held at the private residence of Diana Bennett, raised an incredible 2.6 million dollars, providing 7.8 million meals for children in Southern Nevada. The event was attended by everyone from former Baltimore Raven and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden, to Frances Robinson, the wife of Smokey Robinson.

After that, the Bag Childhood Hunger campaign kicked off in June, with celebrities like Andre and Stefanie Agassi, Chef Gordon Ramsay, UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice and Mayor Carolyn Goodman joining together for a Three Square public-service announcement, which can be viewed on YouTube.

“I take it personally when people say things about Las Vegas,” says Engelstad McGarry. “It’s a place that needs to have everybody who was lucky enough to make a good living here continue to put back into our community.”

“Three Square needs sustainability,” adds Bennett. “The only way to do it is to let our community know that hunger hasn’t gone away even though the economics of our community are improving. Everyone needs to get involved, and it doesn’t take huge amounts of money from people. It takes volunteerism; it takes time. If people knew, for instance, that they could go to the store and put aside groceries for Three Square, they would make a difference right away.”

For more information about Three Square’s Bag Childhood Hunger initiative, go online to BagChildHunger.org. To learn how you can get involved with Three Square Food Bank go to ThreeSquare.org.

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Three Square Food Bank.