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Adjusting to the need

Volunteers load cars for COVID-safe drive-through food distribution. (Courtesy of Rio Grande Food Project)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For the staff and volunteers who power the Rio Grande Food Project, the coronavirus pandemic looks like parking lots and lots of new faces.

The West Side food pantry is based in a unit attached to Rio Grande Presbyterian Church, 600 Coors NW, said Kathi Cunningham, the organization’s development director.

While the space is small, the organization’s impact is anything but – in 2019, upwards of 1.3 million pounds of food moved through the nonprofit and into the hands of people in need. The project distributes food from Roadrunner Food Bank; food “rescued” – but unexpired – from local grocery stores, distributors and farms; and food donated by individual or corporate donors. Some produce also comes from the project’s own gardens, which last year yielded 300 pounds of fruit and vegetables.

“When we tell people the numbers, they’re just floored,” Cunningham said.

But when social distancing became a necessity earlier this year, asking clients to come inside – and asking volunteers to spend time packing food boxes indoors in close proximity – was no longer an option. For a time, the project set up a food distribution center in the parking lot of Legacy Church.

Now, and through October, the nonprofit is doing twice-weekly drive-through distribution centers in the parking lot of Rio Grande Presbyterian Church.

Rio Grande Food Project’s 2020 Urban Garden supports the West Side food pantry. (Courtesy of the Rio Grande Food Project)

It’s not the only change for the 31-year-old food pantry.

In normal times, the project has its regulars. But it also has quite a few clients who go to the nonprofit sporadically. Cunningham said many of those sometimes-clients often are experiencing an unexpected financial setback – a car repair, medical expense or something similar.

“These are people on the edge, and there’s so many people on the edge – pre-COVID,” Cunningham said.

Since the pandemic began, though, and as unemployment has continued to rise, Cunningham and her cohort are seeing more new faces.

While Cunningham thinks part of the reason might be the drive-through format – lines of cars are more conspicuous than people waiting in a building – she also thinks its the expanding ripple effect from the virus and the economic downturn. At a recent distribution site, the group ran out of pre-packed food boxes before the end of the event for the first time.

“This is kind of signaling to us a sign of things to come,” Cunningham said. “… Who knows what it’s going to look like in two months, six months, a year?”

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