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The Front Lines: Food banks face huge demand, health risks

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

David Vigil, an employee at The Food Depot, unpacks bags of onions to be handed out to feed thousands of people. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Some cars started arriving at 5 a.m., an hour before it opened. Others waited nearly as long in large lines stretching nearly a mile.

All came to The Food Depot for meals they can’t get anywhere else as thousands in northern New Mexico struggle to put food on the table, the result of a continuously shrinking economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About a dozen staff and volunteers went to each car, asking drivers how many family members needed food, and began packing prepared meals into the vehicles.

Usually, the lines extend from The Food Depot’s location all the way up Siler Road, snaking around Cerrillos Road for over a mile. Jill Dixon, the Depot’s development director, said the line wasn’t so bad today – only half a mile.

Dixon said that in her eight years of working at The Food Depot, she has never seen this many people lining up for meals.

“That’s pretty hard to see, how many new people we have every week,” she said, adding demand for food is up 30%.

For new people, it can be a difficult experience as they confront the stigma that comes with using food banks, Dixon said. Some don’t make eye contact with volunteers, while others try to remain stoic as tears stream down their face.

Jackie Hillow, a volunteer, directs traffic off Siler Road into The Food Depot to pick up food in Santa Fe on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Food Depot holds two distributions in Santa Fe a week, each serving over 3,000 people. Their distribution in Ohkay Owingeh serves over 4,500 people in a line that extends two miles on N.M. 68.

Some just grab food for themselves, while others pick up meals for three or four other families who are unable to do so themselves.

Lorraine Romero came to pick up food for her family of seven, including her four grandchildren. She had used The Food Depot before, but the pandemic has caused her to need more food than usual.

“The kids eat a lot,” she said. “Now that they’re home from school, all they want to do is eat, eat, eat.”

Dan Gonzo said the few hundred dollars a month he made on Social Security and disability checks were not enough to pay bills and food. Then, his roommate was laid off.

“This is the first time I’ve came (to The Food Depot) in years,” he said. “I’ve got a bad back, I can’t work.”

Laci Valdez, right, the warehouse project coordinator for The Food Depot, passes out food items to the hundreds of vehicles snaked through their facility. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

And as demand has soared in recent weeks, The Food Depot has had to adjust its operations.

Before, local supermarkets supplied most of their food, but the increased demand for groceries means stores have less to donate. The Food Depot has had to start buying food directly from vendors in order to meet the need, relying mostly on donations to pay for it.

“We’re not in any danger of going under at this point, but that’s only because people have been so generous,” Dixon said.

The Food Depot is also assembling a list of backup volunteers in case a staff member contracts the virus, which would force many other volunteer and staff members to quarantine at home.

“We could lose up to 50% of our volunteer force with one positive test,” Dixon said.

Lack of access

Over the past month of distributing meals, Dixon said she has come to know many families who come by The Food Depot regularly. Many come from low-income backgrounds. She estimated 80% of those coming to the Siler Road location speak primarily Spanish.

The Food Depot did run a distribution site at Capital High School, located in Santa Fe’s southside, one of the city’s neediest areas.

However, complaints of long lines and an incident involving a handgun led to the Santa Fe Police Department on April 11 ordering The Food Depot to move the site somewhere else, leaving no food distribution sites on the city’s south side.

Kristi Salazar, a volunteer and board member at The Food Depot, said many families in the southside are unable to drive across town to Siler Road to pick up meals. At Capital, 20-30 families would walk up to get meals, while others can’t afford the gas, affecting their ability to get meals at local schools, she said.

“Even though the schools are still offering those meals, they’re not getting out there,” Salazar said.

People in a car hold up a sign to the volunteers and staff of The Food Depot as they pick up food. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

She said she expects many families will still drive out to Capital High, unaware the location has closed. The Food Depot has begun an awareness campaign and is looking for a new southside location.

The Capital site also allowed The Food Depot to use commodity food items, which are donated by the federal government, but require a lengthy registration process for each visitor. Dixon said The Food Depot’s headquarters is too small for that process, meaning they buy even more food out-of-pocket.

Dixon said the long lines highlight the economic fragility many residents experience, and how many struggled with hunger even before the pandemic.

“It’s one missed paycheck, and suddenly your rent is late and all the money you had for food is gone,” she said. “It’s incredible how quickly people’s circumstances change.”

And despite the long hours of emotional and potentially risky work, Dixon said she is doing more for her community by helping families get fed.

“This is what I’m called to do,” she said. “I have the choice to stand on the front lines – and I do.”

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