For Santa Fe-based The Food Depot, its Kids Kitchen program is their answer to combating food insecurity.
In a 2019 report from Feeding America, New Mexico ranked worst in the nation for childhood hunger in 2019 at 24.1%.
In the same report, four counties in New Mexico reported a child hunger rate of above 30%: McKinley, Luna, Cibola and Catron.
“Kids Kitchen was created less than five years ago and came out of necessity,” said Jill Dixon, The Food Depot deputy director. “We were operating several programs as a food bank so that kids in this area could enjoy fresh and free meals after school.
Kids Kitchen is a collaboration between the United Way of Santa Fe County and of The Food Depot to provide meals to multiple locations in the Santa Fe area.
Located at 1222 Siler Road, Suite A, in Santa Fe, The Food Depot provides meals to nine counties and has helped over 39,000 people combat food insecurity.
Areas impacted by The Food Depot are Harding, Rio Arriba, Taos, Mora, Colfax, Union, San Miguel, Los Alamos and Santa Fe counties.
“There are food deserts throughout northern New Mexico in our service area, and we are trying to identify those food deserts and make sure we supply to those communities,” said Sherry Hooper, The Food Depot executive director.
Throughout the first semester of the 2021-22 school year, Kids Kitchen provided 65,427 meals to a total of 18 locations.
“Kids Kitchen started out small, as we were only serving four schools at first,” Dixon said. “It still mattered when we were only serving 40 or 50 kids at a time.”
During the summer when kids are on break, Kids Kitchen steps up to the plate and provides meals as part of the Summer Feeding Program at sites in and around Santa Fe.
“It was a real challenge getting a third-party vendor that could meet the federal reimbursement requirements and provide food in a safe and timely manner,” Dixon said.
The Food Depot faced challenges while searching for a vendor and tried using a vendor in Albuquerque as there were not many options to begin with.
“Around the same time, we chatted with folks who ran a kitchen program and they gave us the great idea of having our own kitchen,” Dixon said. “It was a difficult year of planning, but here we are with a nice kitchen several years later.”
Most of the meals come through the Santa Fe Public Schools’ 21st Century Grant program, which is federally funded through the Child and Adult Care Program.
Currently, Kids Kitchen serves only Santa Fe County.
“It is important to note that a lot of children rely on school breakfast and lunch for their only meals of the day,” Hooper said. “So we are excited to feed kids after school so they do not have to (wait) until the next day to eat.”
Hooper is one of many professionals at The Food Depot, looking for new ways to help the community.
“My role with Kids Kitchen is mostly oversight; I try to leave the menu planning to the experts,” Hooper said. “I think it is important because we are feeding hundreds of kids the nutritious and tasty meals they need.”
In 2021, Kids Kitchen distributed over 10.6 million pounds of food, which breaks down to more than 8 million meals.
“Now we have surpassed our goal of over 1,000 meals a day so now we are considering a larger kitchen,” Hooper said. “My favorite aspect of working with Kids Kitchen is knowing each day that kids in this area are getting fed.”
With Kids Kitchen achieving so much success, The Food Depot is looking to branch out in the near future.
“Part of The Food Depot’s new strategic plan involves expanding Kids Kitchen so that we can not only reach more children but handle other challenges,” Hooper said. “We would like to provide frozen meals for senior citizens to be prepared later.”
Frozen meals will help guide senior citizens into a quicker and more efficient way to prepare food.
“Often seniors tell us that they have difficulties eating fresher foods because they do not have teeth,” Hooper said. “Many of them have also said they stopped cooking due to fear of starting a fire so we are trying to pay attention to the challenges seniors experiencing hunger are facing.”
Along with frozen meals, Kids Kitchen looks to provide groceries as well for families in need.
“We think this will provide a viable option for families who are really busing trying to make end’s meet,” Dixon stated. “This way, they do not have to rely on dollar menus when time and money are both short.”
A 2014 Hunger in America report found that more than 80% of families suffering from food scarcity earn less than $20,000 per year.
Last week, Dixon worked a shift at Kids Kitchen in hopes of having a greater understanding of all facets of The Food Depot.
“We start early, with six to eight people each day plus a few volunteers,” Dixon said. “I was opening and stuffing paper bags with meals to be distributed to three schools that day.”
Volunteers also enjoy adding notes in the lunch bags for the students.
“After that, I moved to peeling cucumbers and I believe we went through six produce boxes that day alone,” Dixon said. “One of the chefs made multiple vats of elbow macaroni along with a number of people that were cleaning dishes and cutting other vegetables.”
For those that would like to get involved, you can volunteer or donate at thefooddepot.org.