BY LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
“It keeps me awake at night,” admitted Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot in Santa Fe, referring to the alarming increase in New Mexico households who regularly experience hunger. Hooper, who has almost 30 years of leadership experience with food banks, spoke to the Rotary Club of Los Alamos, via Zoom, on Nov. 17.
With a descriptive PowerPoint, Hooper explained how the “pandemic has changed the face of hunger.” There are five food banks in New Mexico, each serving “tens of thousands” each week. In addition to The Food Depot in Santa Fe, which serves Los Alamos on the last Friday of each month and works with LA Cares, there are also food banks based in Clovis (Food Bank of Eastern New Mexico), Gallup (Community Pantry), Farmington (Echo Food Bank), and Roadrunner (Albuquerque and Las Cruces). Hooper cited figures that show that before the pandemic 8.1% of our Los Alamos residents were considered food insecure; the rate has now increased to 10.2%. Approximately 200-300 Los Alamos residents receive food supplies from The Food Bank during its monthly Friday distribution.
The Food Depot alone serves over 140 programs in nine of Northern New Mexico’s counties. Hooper shared that 20% of the statewide food relief once available has closed. In some New Mexico counties, the hunger rates for children are over 40%. Approximately 163,000 children in New Mexico go hungry everyday.
Together these five food banks serve all 33 counties in New Mexico, supplying food pantries, daycare centers, after-school programs, soup kitchens, healthcare partners, senior centers, and chapter houses on the Navajo Nation. All tribal communities have been hard-hit by the pandemic, the Navajo Nation especially. With little cold storage, roads that are often impassable, especially in wet or winter weather, and without a wide variety of culturally appropriate foods, due to the decrease in available commodities, their residents are extremely vulnerable to food (and fresh water) shortages.
Food bank services have also suffered during the pandemic because many volunteers are in vulnerable age and health categories; the supply chain of food has been disrupted, sometimes with food deliveries delayed six to eight weeks; and there has been a large-scale decrease in food donations. The Food Depot is discovering that food, gasoline, and cardboard boxes for food delivery are increasingly expensive; even aluminum foil is scarce!
Hooper and others who operate food banks in New Mexico are working to continue to “rescue food from retailers,” put contracts in place, and develop creative ways to garden and farm, such as adding one more row of crops to each plot or field to be dedicated to food giving.
With food banks in New Mexico almost entirely supported by individual donations, Hooper worries about the projection made in the Albuquerque Journal in July: It will take up to four years for New Mexico to recover from the pandemic.
In closing, Hooper thanked the Rotary Club of Los Alamos for holding its successful Meals of Hope project in September, and then told about a friend “who grew up poor” and had very little to eat. As a child, he tightened his belt as much as possible to help quell his pangs of hunger. Hooper said that story never fails to motivate her when she is discouraged about New Mexico’s food insecurity and its monumental challenges.
To learn more about The Food Depot and ways to donate, please go to: https://www.thefooddepot.org/ or call (505) 471-2025.
To learn more about LA Cares and ways to donate, please contact: (505) 661-8015, PO Box 248, Los Alamos, NM 87544.
To learn more about the Rotary Club of Los Alamos, please contact: Laura Gonzales, president, (505) 699-5880 or Skip King, membership chair, (505) 662-8832.