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Food pantry: ‘These people depend on us’

Volunteers with the Checkerboard Food Pantry prepare food for families in the Cuba and Gallina areas, and the Navajo communities of Torreon and Ojo Encino. Food is taken by volunteers to families waiting in cars. (Courtesy of Peggy McCracken)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Organizers of the Checkerboard Food Pantry in Cuba were faced with a difficult decision when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in New Mexico.

Should they close the food pantry to prevent the spread of the coronavirus?

“We knew we couldn’t do that,” food pantry director Peggy McCracken said. “We knew these people depend on us.”

The Checkerboard Food Pantry, which is part of the Roadrunner Food Bank system, serves rural areas around Cuba and Gallina, as well as the Navajo Nation communities of Torreon and Ojo Encino.

But remaining open during the pandemic would present challenges for the pantry, which operates on the third Wednesday of each month at the Sandoval County Fairgrounds.

Topping the list was that the pantry would not be in compliance with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health order banning large gatherings. The pantry serves more than 200 families a month, and clients normally gather, get carts and load them with food as they go through the building.

“We also wanted to find a way to make sure it was safe for our clients and our volunteers,” McCracken said. “Many of our clients and volunteers are vulnerable to the virus. They are elderly with underlying health conditions, like diabetes.”

Organizers came up with a solution: The food pantry is now a drive-thru operation.

Volunteers organize two lines of vehicles. Inside, other volunteers bag and box food and take it out to the clients’ cars.

She said families receive about five boxes loaded with bread, canned goods, meat “and lots of produce.”

“Families usually receive between $150 to $200 worth of groceries,” McCracken said. “It’s enough to last them at least a week.”

The pantry also has cases of water for Navajo families whose homes lack running water, she said.

The pantry served about 160 families in March. McCracken believes some families stayed away in fear of catching the virus. She believes word got out the pantry was using a drive-thru method, and more than 200 showed up in April.

But not all of the families the pantry normally serves were to able to show up. McCracken said about two-thirds of the pantry’s clients lived on the Navajo Nation. Organizers found out there were about 15 families under quarantine.

“We knew there were kids in need of food,” she said.

She said Laura Salcedo, the special education director from the local school system, secured a school bus.

“We loaded up the school bus, and food was carried out to the families,” McCracken said.

Because most of the pantry’s volunteers are senior citizens, McCracken said, about half are staying home to keep from getting the virus.

She said youths from AMI Kids in Cuba are helping with the volunteer shortage. AMI Kids is a program that works with at-risk youths.

“We have 70-year-olds working with 17-year-olds,” McCracken said. “Our volunteers aren’t getting paid. They do this because they want to help. They are the ones who really deserve the credit for this.”

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