Northern New Mexico’s fight against food insecurity

In the region’s most impoverished rural areas, food pantries fill gaps of grocery stores.


In the small mountain communities of Ojo Sarco and Truchas, N.M., food is hard to come by. Though the towns lie fewer than 30 miles away from multiple grocery stores and a Wal-Mart in Española, access is impaired by an elevation of more than 8,000 feet, and harsh road conditions during summer rain and snowy winters.

“Gas is expensive, it costs a lot to get out here,” Truchas resident Carly Benson, 27, said. “You have to make your trips worthwhile.”

Benson and her husband moved to Truchas from Dallas, Texas, in May, in search of a life outside the city. In the process, though, the couple drained their savings account. With little money left to afford food, the Bensons have come to rely on the Ojo Sarco food pantry for sustenance. Each week the Bensons are among the 50 or so people who pick up a hand-held basket of fresh meat, non-perishable items and fresh vegetables at the pantry. “We paid bills with this paycheck, no groceries,” Benson said. “This is grocery shopping for us.”

Food pantries serve as the de facto grocery stores for the rural, poverty-stricken communities of Rio Arriba County and Northern New Mexico. Although organizations have expanded efforts to reach hungry people in recent years, the fight against food insecurity is far from over.

Hidden crisis

Hunger is a hidden crisis in the U.S. and New Mexico, said Sherry Hooper, executive director of the Santa Fe Food Depot, a group that’s responsible for distributing 400,000 meals a month to nine Northern New Mexico counties, including Rio Arriba. The United States Department of Agriculture coined the term “food insecurity” to describe those who face a reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. People with low food security experience disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. “Here, we say people are hungry,” Hooper said.

A 2014 Feeding America study states that 12 percent of Rio Arribans experience hunger to some degree. Although that rate is below the state average of 17 percent, food insecurity is still a significant problem in the county. An estimated 4,870 Rio Arribans are hungry.

“One of the biggest issues we face is people not recognizing we have a problem with hunger,” said Food Depot Development Director Jill Gentry, whose organization distributed over 1.2 million meals in Rio Arriba in 2015. “When it comes to talking about hunger in our individual communities, it’s something that a lot of people like to turn their faces away from.”

Rural distribution

Rio Arriba has nine food pantry locations, with five pantries distributing food at least once a month. Three centers in Dixon, Ojo Sarco and Truchas reach still more rural communities.

The Carnelian Center, a nonprofit organization, operates the Ojo Sarco food pantry for $5,000 a year in the Ojo Sarco community center building. A Food Depot delivery arrives in Ojo Sarco twice a month, hours before the food pantry opens, as the Carnelian Center isn’t permitted to store food at the community center.

Scott Aby, 46, an 18-year resident of Ojo Sarco, and husband of Carnelian Center President Lluvia Lawyer Aby, picks up the Pantry’s food from the Food Depot during the weeks the Pantry doesn’t deliver. “Hats off to Scott and his family,” said Yohosame Cameron, 47, of Truchas. “How instrumental they’ve been and how selfless they’ve worked to make this happen and sustain it.”

Five mobile food pantries in Rio Arriba County have helped fill the void in other Rio Arriba communities with no groceries available. Locations in Abiquiú, Chimayó, El Rito, Ojo Caliente and Vallecitos give out food once a month. Yet gaps in service remain. “There are still parts of our nine service county areas we believe we can’t reach,” Hooper said. “We’re really looking at identifying those gaps and making sure we get food in those smaller communities.”

In some cases, a lack of longterm food storage capacity also poses an obstacle to providing meals. To resolve that problem, partners of food banks, pantries, kitchens and the Food Depot have provided grants for freezers and kitchen equipment. For example, San Martin de Porres Soup Kitchen in Española has periodically upgraded their kitchen and capacity with grants from United Way of Northern New Mexico and the Cities of Gold casino, which three years ago bought an industrial-sized oven and stove for the soup kitchen.

Improving food quality

The San Martin De Porres soup kitchen, the only soup kitchen in Rio Arriba county, is tucked in the middle of a low-income housing community in the center of Española. The kitchen provides lunch for 50 to 100 daily patrons at 11:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, with the help of volunteers from a network of eight churches. Volunteers also deliver meals to clients who can’t physically make it to lunch. Sometimes, San Martin provides the only meal a patron will eat for the entire day.

San Martin De Porres Soup Kitchen volunteer Tom Montoya carries a breakfast scramble from the kitchen to the dining room. The soup kitchen, aided by donations from the Food Depot, provides a hot meal at 11:30 a.m. every weekday with the help of volunteers from a network of eight churches.
Andrew Martinez/Rio Grande Sun

Housed in a rent- and utility-free building owned by the Housing and Urban Development Department in Santa Fe, San Martin operates on an $80,000 annual budget. The kitchen’s pantries and walk-in freezers are stocked with frozen and non-perishable goods, donated on the first Wednesday of every month. “We can get food every single week if we want to,” said San Martin organizer Suzan Roybal. “We get food donations from other sources, so we’re looking good.”

While running out of food has never been an issue for the soup kitchen, Roybal admitted donations lack protein. “It’s one of the most important things in your menu,” she said. “Protein is one of the things that’s least donated.”

The Food Depot is getting closer to their goal of 10 to 12 percent of all distribution being protein-rich foods, although protein still poses a unique challenge for the delivery of 5.7 million pounds of food each year across Colfax, Harding, Los Alamos, Mora, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Taos and Union counties. Items such as chicken can’t be given to those without a home, electricity or gas needed to cook the food. “A significant percentage of our clientele can only receive protein in certain forms,” Gentry said. “There’s real challenges around that.”

In place of poultry, beans are a common source of non-perishable protein distributed at food pantries.

Despite the challenges of obtaining consistent quantities of protein-rich food, healthy food still finds its way into rural communities. On Aug. 24, for instance, Cameron picked up frozen, wild-caught salmon, organic mangoes, organic soy milk and potatoes from the Ojo Sarco food pantry. “Most of it comes from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, so the quality is really good,” he said.

Aby said the quality of deliveries has been very healthy, despite the occasional box of donuts or sweets.  “We were getting a lot of stuff we honestly didn’t want to give away, a lot of sugary stuff,” Aby said. “They’ve (Food Depot) have been really nice about letting us get more of this stuff.”

Doubling SNAP benefits

One way for the Food Depot to get fresh produce is through a partnership with the Santa Fe Farmers Market. A longstanding relationship with the Farmers Market has allowed farmers to donate overstocked produce to the Depot. Markets now offer double the worth of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, a program which the Depot is trying to promote to their communities.

“When they go into a grocery store, when they’re trying to use the money they have most effectively, oftentimes, the less expensive food is the food that isn’t as healthy,” Hooper said. “It may be calorie-dense, but it doesn’t have the nutrients that fresh produce, for example, has.”

A 2015 Agriculture Department report noted that the number of New Mexico Farmers Markets authorized to use SNAP benefits jumped from 10 to 45 over eight years. Redemptions increased 9 percent, to over $200,000.

Although the Española Farmers Market began offering double SNAP benefits two years ago, it still sees five to 10 first-time users every Market Monday. Customers can take their EBT card to the Market, where an attendant exchanges credit into $1 wood tokens and $2 silver tokens, using a card swipe machine. Wood tokens are a direct exchange of EBT credit, while the silver tokens are the double benefit provided from a grant by the state, only valid for fruits and vegetables.

 “It’s a huge benefit to the market,” said Española Farmers Market organizer Sabra Moore. “Last year we did about $28,000 in free food.”

On Aug. 31, for instance, one customer redeemed $100 worth of EBT credit, earning an additional $100 in silver tokens. “It’s a way to budget himself,” she said. “Throughout the month, he knows he’s got the money to spend at the market.”

Longterm solutions

Even so, combating hunger is an issue that nonprofit organizations like the Food Depot are still trying to figure out. On July 12, the Food Depot’s administration met with community leaders interested in solutions for hunger in the first-ever Rio Arriba Agency Relations Council community meeting, at El Paragua restaurant in Española. Agency Relations Council community meetings elsewhere, such as in San Miguel County, have made strides in fighting hunger. The committee was responsible for helping to launch the Las Vegas-San Miguel Hunger Partnership, which organized a city-wide food drive last year. Hooper hopes the same works in Rio Arriba.

“As a food bank, we want to partner with all these folks, businesses, elected officials,” she said. “We’re all trying to figure out longterm solutions.”

Because hunger is ultimately rooted in poverty, Gentry said the conversation tends to shift toward observing and working on poverty issues. “Multi-sector individuals — education, employment, health, everybody needs to be involved in these solutions,” Gentry said.

Yvonne Bonner, 75, an eight-year resident of Ojo Sarco, records anonymous statistics from Ojo Sarco patrons and noted the poverty issue among the community. “Do you earn over $20,000? Everybody said, ‘No,’ or ‘I wish,’” Bonner said.

Bonner is retired and earns Social Security with her husband. She also qualifies for extra help with Medicare, but still relies on the Ojo Sarco food pantry for vital food resources.

“I’d be eating tea and toast, like some other elderly people do,” she said. “If it wasn’t for this, it would be rough.”

Aby said Ojo Sarco’s services are available for people from all financial situations, particularly during winter months, when it’s especially hard to get down the mountain. “Bill Gates shows up, I’ll give him food,” Aby said.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

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