COVID-19

Food pantries struggle to keep up with demand

Taos groups see need rise as people lose jobs

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More than 15 percent of New Mexico residents worry about having enough food to eat each year, including almost a quarter of the state's children. But experts at The Food Depot, a food bank serving Northern New Mexico, believe those rates are rising even higher during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think the piece that those of us that have worked in this for a long time can see is that a significant part of the population was economically fragile to begin with," said Jill Dixon, development director for The Food Depot, located in Santa Fe. "We serve people who may not need help every month, but it doesn't take much to push a family into a financial crisis."

Many more New Mexico families are struggling to make ends meet after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered non-essential businesses to close down as a means of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a result, business owners shed employees they could no longer afford to pay, which prompted more than 125,000 state residents to file unemployment claims between March 13 and April 25, according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

Dixon believes the financial strain placed on New Mexico families has aggravated the historic problem of food insecurity in Northern New Mexico.

While the average rate of food insecurity in the United States was 13 percent as of 2017, according to Feeding America, The Food Depot's parent organization, New Mexico recorded a rate of 15.5 percent that year. The rate of children going hungry in New Mexico is much worse than that, at 24 percent. The overall rate in Taos County matches that of the state, but the county's 25 percent rate for children is slightly higher.

The Food Depot serves 440,000 meals per month to 34,500 people in nine counties through its nonprofit partners. Taos County receives around 18 percent of the 6.3 million pounds of food the organization collects each year, which is distributed through four organizations in the area: St. James Food Pantry in Taos, Shared Table in El Prado, North Central Food Pantry in Questa and La Jicarita Food Basket in Peñasco.

Dixon said The Food Depot reports the number of people it serves quarterly. She does not yet have exact figures for the current period starting in mid-February, when the pandemic has had the greatest impact on New Mexico. A comparison of October through December of 2019 with January through March of this year, however, showed a slight jump from 4,380 people served in Taos County to 4,613.

She said that increase is likely nominal compared to what the organization will see in the current quarter.

"Even for someone who's been in the business for some time, the depth of the need right now is profound," she said. "It's heartbreaking how necessary this is, but it's inspirational to see how many people want to help."

Fewer volunteers

At the same time, The Food Depot and its partners have seen a decline in volunteers, who are often elderly and could no longer serve due to the heightened risk of infection. Some food pantries have even been forced to close because they were operated primarily by people in the 65-and-over range.But Dixon said that's a problem her organization anticipated. The Food Depot put out the call for new people who could help package and hand out food while following new safety protocols, such as wearing gloves and masks.

They set up a new drive-through model of food distribution, which volunteers now help to operate in Río Arriba County on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Food pantries in Taos that purchase their supplies from The Food Depot are following the same model, but have also experienced a similar rise in need and decline in volunteers capable of distributing food.

"We were at 50-plus volunteers, but now we have about 32," said Jill Cline, youth minister at St. James Episcopal Church on Gusdorf Road. "About 85 percent of them are new to our food pantry. Yes, age and health risks have caused us to change the scope of who can safely volunteer with us right now."

Rising need

Every Thursday they don gloves and masks to serve an average of 1,568 families in the St. James parking lot, up from an average of 1,344 in previous weeks, Cline estimated. During the food pantry's busiest week, Cline said they saw a 40 percent increase.

The church also provides bags of groceries to around 700 families with students and homeless youth on a biweekly basis. They have partnered with numerous other county agencies, such as Taos County Meals on Wheels, to provide food to other populations that may be struggling with food insecurity.

On the other side of town, El Pueblito United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church operate Shared Table, another food pantry, that has also shifted to a drive-through model. Distribution happens there from 11 a.m. to noon on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month at El Pueblito United Methodist Church and from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Talpa Community Center.

Cheri Lyon, El Pueblito's pastor and director of Shared Table, said the average number of food boxes provided at the drive-through sites has jumped from an average of 196 boxes at each site last year to as high as 750 last month.

She said local shopping chains like Walmart have stepped up to help provide not only food but feminine hygiene products, soap and diapers, one of the items that has been targeted by hoarders during the pandemic.

Dixon said The Food Depot has struggled to keep up with the rising demand.

While most of the food is sourced through the United States Department of Agriculture, the organization has been relying more and more on local grocery stores and food vendors. Even there, however, the rush that followed the pandemic's arrival in New Mexico has caused a shortage.

She said her organization isn't expecting the pressure to let up anytime soon.

"While we are all looking toward when things will be reopening," Dixon added, "I think we have a very realistic understanding of the depth of this crisis and that it's not going to be over for quite some time."

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