Partnership helps boost funding for St. James Episcopal Church food pantry

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St. James Episcopal Church has partnered with Taos Community Foundation and Medley Restaurant to help give Taoseños a little more food security.

The church hosts food distribution every Thursday for those in need. Volunteers spend hours bagging up the groceries on Monday and Tuesday to give to their Taos neighbors.

The nonprofit Taos Community Foundation matched money donated by Medley Restaurant. Other donors followed suit and by last week, the church was given a grant of more than $8,400. "That's 1,000 meals," said a grateful Marilyn Farrow, who coordinates the food pantry for the church.

Volunteers with the St. James Episcopal Church food pantry have been helping out hungry neighbors with food for more than 30 years. Farrow has worked with the pantry for more than 12 years. In that time alone, a lot has changed, she said.

In the early years, volunteers simply bagged up groceries and handed them out to people who came by the church. About a decade ago, the church changed it to a choice system, Farrow said. "A lot of people didn't know how to cook with some of the food in the bags, so it ended up getting wasted," Farrow said.

Now fresh produce, canned goods, rice, beans and other staples are stacked neatly on rows of tables by volunteers. People can then come by, pick up an empty bag and fill it with the foods they are accustomed to cooking. If they are a little nervous, but curious to try other foods, some volunteer chefs and nutrition experts drop by to offer recipes and cooking tips.

Like clockwork on Monday mornings, volunteers work a sort of assembly line, preparing the food that will be distributed.

On Wednesdays, The Food Depot food bank in Santa Fe delivers fresh produce and other goods to the church. St. James receives 17,000 to 20,000 pounds a week from The Food Depot.

On Thursday mornings, volunteers set out the food. People begin coming after 1 p.m. to pick out and fill up their bags. No one is questioned about their income levels or qualifications to receive a food bag. "We don't ask," said Farrow. "Everyone is welcome."

The pantry closes at 4 p.m. each Thursday.

Farrow said the number of bags handed out has increased dramatically. "It used to be we handed out 50 bags a week and thought that was a big deal," Farrow said.

The volunteers now regularly provide food bags for 600 families - or more. Farrow said, "I don't know how we get it all done."

In 2016 alone, the food pantry provided 338 tons of groceries to people in need.

Farrow also noticed a change in the kind of people showing up to pick up groceries each week. In June, St. James asks people to fill out an anonymous survey so that the church can track the demographics of who uses the food pantry. She has noted more Anglos and Native Americans seem to be stopping in for groceries than in the past. She's also seen a definite increase in the number of elderly people in their 70s and 80s coming by for groceries and many of them are taking care of their grandchildren younger than 15. "We do our best to do everything we can to help them," Farrow said.

Lisa O'Brien said the partnership for the grant grew out of a single phone call. The call "sparked a conversation between Medley Restaurant owner, Wilks Medley and Foundation Director, Lisa O'Brien that is hoped to be a catalyst for future charitable gifts to support the hunger needs in Taos," O'Brien said in a statement. "Wilks, an avid cyclist has participated the last two years in Chefs Cycle, a 300-mile cycling endurance event that raises money for No Kid Hungry, a national organization raising awareness on the needs of hunger in the United States. Upon returning home to Taos, Wilks contacted the Community Foundation with a pledge to support something local."

New Mexico is the worst state in the nation for child hunger, O'Brien said.

Experts say hunger affects a child's ability to perform well in school, and hunger affects the children's behavior. Childhood hunger can also contribute to delayed development and an increased chance for chronic health conditions.

A statewide survey by food banks found that half of the households with seniors older than 65 do not have enough food.

Farrow said the church encourages everyone, regardless of religion or circumstances, to pick up groceries at the weekly food pantry if it will help. Volunteers are always welcome.

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