Editor’s note: Today, the Journal begins its Help for the Holidays series, which spotlights areas in which community members can reach out to neighbors in need.
Feeding New Mexico’s hungry is always a big job – even without COVID-19 complications.
The ongoing pandemic and its economic fallout have made addressing food insecurity tougher than ever for local food pantries and other nonprofits in 2020. Need continues to grow as families struggle with lost jobs and decreased income. Meanwhile, the spread of the virus, and health restrictions meant to contain it, make it harder to get food to those who need it.
Large groups of volunteers working together in one place is not an option this holiday season, so improvisation is necessary.
“We’ve become pros at traffic control,” said Ari Herring, executive director of Rio Grande Food Project on Albuquerque’s West Side. “Need has gone through the roof, and our indoor space is tiny. So all of our food distribution is drive-through now, and we’ve learned how to keep things moving in a dirt parking lot. We’re trying to be creative and find ways to answer this crisis.”
Business has been anything but usual for the nonprofit, which maintains a garden and operates out of a small building near West Mesa High School. When the pandemic hit, RGFP temporarily moved operations to a nearby church parking lot, but the food pantry has since returned to its own space and made adjustments.
“We used to have, like, 75 people, 45 or 50 volunteers, working shoulder to shoulder in one small room packing food boxes,” Herring said. “We were a perfect transmission site for COVID. Not anymore. Now only two or three people can work in our building, and we have a lot fewer volunteers. We’re stretched to the max.”
Other pantries and food providers are facing similar dilemmas.
Storehouse West in Rio Rancho, which serves communities throughout Sandoval County, is being forced to do more with less, Executive Director Jen Payne said.
“The pandemic’s had a big impact,” Payne said. “We’ve had roughly a 25% increase in our overall client base and a fivefold increase in new clients. We’re busy.”
Like RGFP, Storehouse West has adopted an outdoor pickup model. Employees and volunteers pack food boxes and place them on tables for clients. The system has allowed Storehouse West to manage its increased workload with fewer volunteers, Payne said.
Roadrunner Food Bank has taken operations to another level during the pandemic. The state’s largest food bank has offered drive-through distributions at various sites around Albuquerque since March, including a parking lot at University Stadium, where hundreds of vehicles lined up for food boxes Nov. 24.
“That was the largest distribution we’ve run in our history,” Roadrunner spokeswoman Sonya Warwick said.
“Unfortunately, it took a long time for some people to get served that day. My heart goes out to the families who are hurting right now.”
Roadrunner has since moved its distributions to Expo New Mexico and is planning another large event there at 10 a.m. Sunday that Warwick estimated will provide food boxes to more than 1,500 households. That’s in addition to Roadrunner’s usual Tuesday distributions, which are also being held at Expo New Mexico.
The pandemic has forced Joy Junction in Bernalillo County’s South Valley to make adjustments, as well. The shelter has long made food deliveries and hosted large-scale holiday meals, but Thanksgiving was different in 2020.
“We’ve always done it at the Convention Center, and we usually serve over 1,000 people,” Executive Director Elma Reynalds said. “This year, there was no way to do that, so we had to look for another way. With so many people out of work, there’s no choice.”
Joy Junction employees and volunteers adapted by packing and delivering nearly 600 boxed holiday meals to parks and other sites around the city. They’re planning to make similar meal deliveries for Christmas.
Food deliveries have increased for many pantries this year, leaving drivers overwhelmed. It can create problems for other nonprofit organizations trying to fight food insecurity.
Corrales-based Seed2Need, which grows fruit and vegetables for local food pantries, had to make deliveries this year because some of the nonprofits they serve had no pickup drivers available. Social distancing also required Seed2Need to drastically cut back on the number of volunteers it called to plant and harvest.
“We usually get about 100 volunteers and plant all our vegetable plants in about four hours,” Executive Director Penny Davis said. “This year, it took shifts over several days. Fortunately, we had Eagle Scouts who volunteered. We came through it pretty well.”
Seed2Need, which has donated more than 500,000 pounds of produce since 2010, was also hit by late frosts that knocked out most of this year’s fruit crop. Still, the organization managed to deliver more than 25,000 pounds of vegetables to local pantries.
“This was one of those years,” Davis said, “but we’re already back at it. We’ll try to do it again next year and just hope things start to turn around.”
Rio Grande Food Project is also hoping that the pandemic and restrictions begin to ease in the coming months. The pantry’s limited facilities and reduced volunteer numbers have cut into the number of weekly food packages RGFP can provide.
“We’re serving about 350 households a week now,” Herring said. “That’s down from about 400. It’s frustrating, because we have more and more families signing up that have never signed up for food assistance before. But our community has been very generous, and we’re thankful. We’re doing the best we can.”
Payne said Storehouse West has managed to hold its own against the increased demand for food in 2020. Like other nonprofit operators, Payne expects difficulties to continue until the economy starts to recover.
“It’s tough right now,” Payne said, “but people are so grateful to have somewhere to turn when they lose their jobs and can’t put food on the table. It makes you want to do whatever you can.”
“New Mexico is a fragile state when it comes to food security,” she said, “so this pandemic is hitting us hard. It’s the holiday season now, and a lot of people are really struggling. This is a time we need to help each other.”