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State workers key to helping seniors

An assembly line of volunteers in a gymnasium at St. Pius X High School fills boxes with groceries for delivery to seniors and adults with disabilities across New Mexico. The effort, coordinated by the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department, has assembled and distributed about 29,000 boxes. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

While seniors throughout the state are getting at least one meal a day through pickup or home delivery, what they haven’t been getting, and what many of them need, is groceries.

“That’s what we’re doing,” said Dolores Gonzales, policy and planning director at the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department.

For the past six weeks, Gonzales has been coordinating a small army of volunteers who have turned donated space inside a gymnasium at St. Pius X High School into a distribution center. There, nonperishable food is delivered, sorted and assembled into boxes, each about 20 pounds.

Boxes may include items such as pasta, rice, beans, canned vegetables, peanut butter, protein shakes, juice, canned soup, pudding, applesauce, and tuna or chicken pouches.

Many of the 230 now-closed senior centers, which previously provided meals to New Mexico seniors, now serve as hubs, where the boxes of groceries are sent and then delivered to seniors and adults with disabilities living in those communities.

The groceries are intended to last the recipients at least a week, and as more food becomes available, additional items will be added to the boxes, Gonzales said.

With two shifts working daily while following social distancing and other safety measures, about 29,000 boxes of food have been distributed.

“And we’ve been able to establish a hub in every county in New Mexico,” Gonzales said.

The volunteers, “the heart and soul” of the effort, Gonzales said, include state employees “who had been working out of their homes but came down to help us out.”

Among them are employees of the Agency and Long-Term Services Department; Children, Youth and Families Department; Motor Vehicle Division; Department of Health; General Services Division; Regulation and Licensing Department; and the Development Disabilities Planning Council.

Bernalillo County employees have pitched in to drive forklifts for unloading deliveries of food and then loading assembled boxes onto privately contracted trucks for delivery to hubs throughout the state.

There also has been a large contingent from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which collected letters of encouragement from children to place in the boxes of food, Gonzales said.

The church also paid for two tractor-trailer loads of food that will be delivered to St. Pius in late May, and it provided a grant that was used to purchase more food from suppliers such as Shamrock Foods, Ben E. Keith and Roadrunner Food Bank.

Gonzales initiated the food box project “because seniors are among our most vulnerable population, and have been for quite a long time,” she said. “Many live on Social Security alone and often have to choose between filling prescriptions or buying food.”

Jeff Turcotte, activities and marketing director at St. Pius, said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school cannot officially endorse or sanction the involvement of any school staffers or students. But opening up the gymnasium for the project was an easy decision, he said.

“This was an opportunity for us to do something. St. Pius has to be a big part of the community, and this is how we can help right now.”

Nancy Banuelos stacks boxes that will be filled with groceries and sent to seniors and adults with disabilities around the state. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

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