Heroes: Feeding the hungry

By Elizabeth Burns
Posted 6/26/20

A continuous line of cars snakes through the parking lot to the parish hall doors of St. James Episcopal Church, on Camino de Santiago.

It's Thursday, distribution day for the church's food pantry. Inside the hall, one group of volunteers fills boxes with peanut butter, bananas, beans, soup, a can of tomato paste and a dessert item. Then another group takes the boxes outside where two final items, onions and eggs, are added before they're handed off to their recipients.

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Heroes: Feeding the hungry

Posted

A continuous line of cars snakes through the parking lot to the parish hall doors of St. James Episcopal Church, on Camino de Santiago.

It's Thursday, distribution day for the church's food pantry. Inside the hall, one group of volunteers fills boxes with peanut butter, bananas, beans, soup, a can of tomato paste and a dessert item. Then another group takes the boxes outside where two final items, onions and eggs, are added before they're handed off to their recipients.

A red SUV loaded with 50 boxes of potatoes pulls up to a side door. Out hops Mike Musialowski, who purchased the potatoes in Colorado and is donating them to three area food programs. St James is his first stop, followed by the Backpacker program at Enos Garcia Elementary School and Shared Table. Two weeks ago he donated a pallet of pinto beans that he drove to Estancia to collect.

Distribution days are the busiest for Taos area food programs, but volunteers work throughout the week to prepare for them. On Mondays at St. James, they gather to package staples like rice, beans and oats. They also collect food donations from area supermarkets and scrounge up the hundreds of boxes needed to put the food in.

On Thursdays, volunteers begin arriving at 8:30 a.m. to unload the delivery from The Food Depot, in Santa Fe, set up the food stations, bag produce, fill the boxes. When the pantry opens at noon, more show up to register new recipients, direct traffic and deliver the boxes.

Before the pandemic, many volunteers at St. James and Shared Table were in the age bracket most susceptible to getting sick, so when the virus hit, the food banks lost the majority of their helpers just as the economy of Taos was upended.

Fortunately, it didn't take long for new volunteers from all walks of life to appear: Anglo, Hispanic, Native American and African American, men and women, mature and young, including idled students from area schools.

Jill Cline, the St. James Food Pantry's volunteer coordinator, is amazed by the "wide breadth of volunteers," she said. "They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to be a village. What is so cool to me is to see how many people in the community regardless of their faith base are showing up to help their neighbors. There are volunteers who are Catholic, or from the ashram or with no religious affiliation at all but all are helping out because that's what good neighbors do."

One good neighbor is Cline's son, Dylan, who's been volunteering at the Food Pantry since he borrowed money from his mother at age 12 to buy a laptop and she told him he could work off his debt.

He's now 21 and in charge of ordering and managing distribution. The laptop was paid off long ago, so why has Dylan stayed on? Cline beams with pride at her son's answer. "I really enjoy the feeling of actually helping people," he said, "Doing something right instead of sitting at home with my more expensive computer."

Another good neighbor is the Neem Karoli Baba Temple. The temple's treasurer, Punya Upadhyaya, says they and St. James are in partnership to deliver 22 meals weekly to the elderly and homebound families. They are also donating food to Shared Table and Heart of Taos, a shelter for homeless women.

Cheri Lyon, the pastor of El Pueblito Methodist Church and director of Shared Table, said that in March, when rice was impossible to get, the temple gave them all they had.

Cid's, Super Save, Smith's, Walmart, Taos Land Trust and Not Forgotten Outreach are committed to helping where they can either by donating food or by growing it.

Shared Table gives its extra food to a small food program in Carson. The Food Pantry donates food to the Backpackers, and in partnership with Taos Pueblo, Sin Fronteras, Taos Country Sheriff's Office and Meals on Wheels, and with the use of a hot truck loaned by the town, delivers meals to the most vulnerable.

Even the temporarily sidelined volunteers have found ways to continue helping. At St. James, the couple who prepared the lunches in the church's kitchen for volunteers now prepare them two days in advance.

At Shared Table, the elderly, along with board members from the pueblo and some growers from Two Peaks, are growing vegetables starts with pots and soil donated by Petree Nursery and seeds donated by Taos Village Farm.

On May 13, 120 kale starts were given out to needy families eager to grow their own food. "One of our longtime volunteers is on oxygen so she definitely can't be at the church now, but she has a great sunroom. Her plants look terrific," said Lyon.

Ninety percent of the financial contributions to the Food Pantry are from Taoseños and local organizations and foundations. Shared Table's funding is exclusively from donations, from the church, the community and friends and neighbors, and from people like Musialowski, who turn up one day saying they've got a thousand pounds of potatoes.

"We are so grateful that this community has really supported us," Lyon enthused. "The whole town of Taos is a hero."

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