Volunteers with Roadrunner Food Bank load up a vehicle with food boxes during the weekly distribution that happens each Tuesday starting at 9 a.m. at EXPO New Mexico. (Photo by Shaun Griswold/Source NM)
The final two food boxes are placed in a small SUV, the last vehicle of hundreds that neatly line up in rows every Tuesday starting as early as 7 a.m. They fill the parking lot each week at EXPO New Mexico for food distribution.
“Sometimes, like now, I have nothing. I absolutely have nothing,” said one person who was picking up food for her home and a neighbor, but did not want to provide her name. “I’ve never done this kind of stuff ever. Then I started to try it, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what a lifesaver.’”
The Roadrunner Food Bank added weekly drive-thru food distribution at the end of March 2020, right as the world was shattered by the coronavirus pandemic. Ninety-six weeks later, food insecurity is higher than ever, and inventory is becoming harder to come by due to a mix of supply-chain issues and less federal aid.
Food costs have escalated so much. Freight has escalated. Fuel has escalated. We have to continually look ahead in our procurement processes, because the food is harder to find, it's more expensive to buy and it takes longer to get.
– Mag Strittmatter, President and CEO of Roadrunner Food Bank
This is prompting the people who run New Mexico’s food banks to call on the Legislature to approve emergency funds to keep them afloat and meet demand. They’re seeking an appropriation from a flush New Mexico budget that would give them headway to operate into the next fiscal year, which starts July 2022.
President and CEO of Roadrunner Mag Strittmatter said everything is more expensive.
“Food costs have escalated so much,” she said. “Freight has escalated. Fuel has escalated. We have to continually look ahead in our procurement processes, because the food is harder to find, it’s more expensive to buy and it takes longer to get.”
Strittmatter is also the vice president of the New Mexico Association for Food Banks, a collective of five different food banks that distribute weekly aid to more than 70,000 people across the state via drive-thru events, homeless shelters, food pantries and senior service programs.
She said the group is still waiting for the $5 million in federal relief approved by lawmakers during a special session in December: “Any day now.”
Last month, the association asked for $15 million of the state’s remaining $1.1 billion granted by the American Rescue Plan. But the state Legislature committed to spending for only half of the federal aid and shell out the rest during the current 30-day session.
This time around looks the same as the last so far. Food banks are in line to receive another $5 million in emergency relief aid under House Bill 2, according to the state House Majority Office.
Strittmatter said the money approved in December will help the state’s food banks to operate at full capacity until April. She said the additional funds are imperative to keep services going until their new budget year begins in the summer.
“We’re just racing through our budgets,” she said. “I know for Roadrunner, our purchase budget, which is several million dollars, we’re about 90% spent, and we still have five months left in the fiscal year.”
Emergency funds will keep New Mexicans fed in the short term. So what’s being done to prepare for the long haul?
According to a recent report from the state’s Human Services Department, New Mexico is ranked 5th in the nation for food insecurity, and the latest figures available show the estimated number of individuals who needed food assistance in the state grew from 315,900 in 2019 to 372,490 in 2020.
A proposal in the New Mexico Senate could provide greater support for how food banks use state funding to access food for all their services.
Senate Bill 65 is a request for a recurring $12 million appropriation to the Human Services Department for additional food purchases and delivery to food banks.
Wednesday, the bill was debated and passed by the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.
The Legislative Finance Committee’s review of the bill offers a suggestion to amend the legislation so that the state agency receiving the money could “provide emergency food banks statewide with funding to purchase nonperishable food items.”
Direct aid to food banks gives them a better sense of how to forecast their spending to meet needs and a greater flexibility when supply, cost or delivery issues arise, said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos).
“I think that even before the virus, this is showing us that we had a food insecurity problem, and we have hunger in our state,” she said. “Almost every single member of the New Mexico state Senate has signed on to the hunger caucus, meaning we don’t want to see hunger in any of our parts of our state.”
Kate Page operates five weekly food distribution events in coordination with Roadrunner: Expo New Mexico in Albuquerque, the AMC Theater and El Centro Senior Living facility in the South Valley, Kewa Pueblo, and the Navajo Nation Torreon Chapter House near Cuba.
She organized the first drive-thru event back in March 2020 and has experienced everything from orders not shipping because there are no truck drivers to seeing the price of a can of soup increase by 100%.
“We’re buying more food than we’ve ever bought before, and the cost of that’s much higher,” she said. “The cost of your basics — soups, canned vegetables, those kinds of things — have increased a lot. Sometimes our loads are scheduled but aren’t able to arrive because there aren’t enough drivers to deliver them.”
Page is the program manager with SeedCorps, an AmeriCorps program at Roadrunner. She said food distribution at Expo has seen a dip in households served from a peak of 750 back in summer 2020 to the 400 households they are currently able to help.
Demand is obvious. Even after they started packing up from Tuesday’s event, several people walked up asking for food. When that happens, Page sets those people up directly with the food bank or services that can get them fed.
I've never done this kind of stuff ever. Then I started to try it, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what a lifesaver.’
– New Mexican picking up food at distribution event
She said supply issues are a direct result of food prices increasing, supply-chain issues and the end of federal aid from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
“All the supply-chain issues that are affecting the general public affect us. Also, we have less donations from stores, distribution centers — all of that has decreased,” she said. “So really we’re hoping for some state funding to help supplement that decrease and make up for the fact that freight costs so much more, and the food itself costs so much more. “
TEFAP’s COVID-19 initiative gave food banks inventory the federal government purchased from suppliers and manufactures with excess. The program ended in December 2020, which led to an immediate reduction of more than 6 million pounds of food in New Mexico’s food banks last year.
Strittmatter said the pandemic program increased their TEFAP inventory from 30% to 45%. The 15% dip is now on the food banks to cover, which is why the call is urgent for something to be done by state lawmakers.
“Hunger is a shared issue that touches every corner of the state,” she said. “We are putting our resources to work as well, but we recognize that in the foreseeable future, the cost of food is not going to just go down. I mean, it’s not going to drop anytime soon.”
The New Mexico Association of Food Banks is a collective of five groups that provide food to people across the state. Contact the food banks to request information about food assistance or to learn how to donate and volunteer.
Roadrunner Food Bank – Albuquerque and Las Cruces
5840 Office Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109
505 S. Main St., Suite, 129 A, Las Cruces, NM 88001
Service in the following counties: Bernalillo, Catron, Chaves, Dona Ana, Eddy, Grant, Hidalgo, Lea, Lincoln, Luna, Otero, Sandoval, Sierra, Socorro, Torrance, Valencia
The Food Depot – Santa Fe
1222 A Siler Road, Santa Fe, NM 87507
Service in the following counties: Colfax, Harding, Los Alamos, Mora, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Taos, Union
The Community Pantry – Gallup
P.O. Box 520, Gallup, NM 87305
Service in the following counties: Cibola, McKinley
Echo Food Bank – Farmington
401 South Commercial Avenue, Farmington, NM 87401
Services in the following counties: San Juan
The Food Bank of Eastern New Mexico – Clovis
2217 E. Brady, Clovis, NM 88101
Services in the following counties: Curry, DeBaca, Guadalupe, Quay, Roosevelt
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