Jill Dixon hopes the sight of an endless line of cars off Siler Road on a cold and dark pandemic morning at The Food Depot is a
relic of the past.
“We have seen a persistent decrease in the amount of people seeking assistance,” Dixon, deputy director of the food bank, said on a recent morning as workers shuffled pallets of milk and dry goods around the warehouse floor.
The Food Depot recently closed a distribution site at Santa Fe Place thanks to lower demand. But that doesn’t mean the hunger crisis is over.
“The food insecurity crisis that existed pre-pandemic was already deeply unacceptable,” she said.
The local Neighbor to Neighbor drive is The Food Depot’s largest annual fundraiser and is entering its 10th year.
Usually, the Neighbor to Neighbor campaign is a food drive. Because of the pandemic, the drive switched to monetary donations last year, when it raised more than $170,000 from 128 neighborhoods.
“Every year, my goal was to increase,” said Neighbor to Neighbor founder Linda Flatt. “Every year, we were more successful in reaching people. The whole idea of this was to build community.”
In 2020, the drive drew fewer participants.
It’s easier for some to donate food they already have than cash, Flatt said.
But those who were able to give gave more, and this year, organizers are hoping to raise $185,000.
For the first time, the drive is open to people in Rio Arriba County as well as Santa Fe County.
Often, people outside Santa Fe aren’t aware they’re a part of The Food Depot’s nine-county service area, Flatt said.
She started the Neighbor to Neighbor campaign 10 years ago. Now she is retired and has a group of volunteers to help her coordinate donations.
One of her favorite aspects of the drive has been the sense of “friendly competition” among neighborhoods competing to collect the most food donations, which usually would culminate in a live event the third Saturday of September.
The event would feature a presentation of trophies fashioned out of canned food.
“It just adds to it,” Flatt said.
As in 2020, the trophy presentation this year will take place virtually.
Dixon said there are benefits to the drive being monetary donations only.
“From a sheer business standpoint, money is far more flexible than food is,” she said.
Where a donor can buy a bag of pinto beans for $1.20, The Food Depot can buy them at a wholesale price of 15 cents a pound. With cash, it can also better predict what kinds of offerings it will have for families and partner organizations.
This year, funds raised by Neighbor to Neighbor will help The Food Depot as it navigates a landscape changed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the global supply chain.
One week, meat plant workers and truck drivers could be out sick with COVID-19, delaying shipments.
Another, a food order placed by The Food Depot could get scooped up by another buyer that needed it more, Dixon said of the past year.
Even now, the rising price of materials such as cardboard boxes and aluminum cans has impacted what and how the organization can provide for the community.
“The balance of trying to stretch every dollar to provide as much nutritious food as possible while also keeping the people we serve at the center of what we do is precarious,” Dixon said.
The sense of emergency amid the pandemic really exposed the vulnerabilities of the state’s hunger relief efforts, Dixon said. Particularly in sparsely populated areas already facing infrastructure issues.
At some rural food pantries, Dixon added, it’s just one person serving a whole community. And they might not have a community space to store much food.
“How close is that hunger relief system to collapse?” she asked. “That’s part of something we’re starting to evaluate and plan around.”
Delia Garcia, 39, has lived in the neighborhood of Las Acequias for four years. She has participated in the Neighbor to Neighbor drive, but she’s also relied on The Food Depot.
“I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum,” she said.
“It can happen to anybody,” she added. “People can lose their jobs. People die. All of the sudden, you’ve got two kids and you weren’t expecting them.”
In 2015, Garcia’s friend died. The news left two elementary-aged children, McKenzie and Landan Lowance, in Garcia’s care. Now, they’re 12 and 13, respectively.
Garcia, a former caregiver, is disabled and relies on Social Security to support them. Because of that, she’s not eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
On her own since she was a teenager, Garcia is familiar with food insecurity.
“It’s definitely something I’ve experienced more than once, and then there’ve been times when I’ve taken many people out to dinner and I was able to buy it for everybody,” she added. “It’s not always that way.”
The Food Depot estimates 1 in 6 New Mexicans is dealing with hunger.
As one of five food banks statewide, it distributes more than a million pounds of food and household products like diapers and pet food annually, including roughly 875,000 meals through partner agencies like the nonprofit Kitchen Angels.
Kitchen Angels uses food from The Food Depot to cook hot meals for people who are housebound, often due to illness.
Robert Griffin, 66, of Santa Fe began a monthlong hospital stay for kidney failure earlier in the pandemic. After that, it was a month of rehabilitation and physical therapy. He had to relearn how to walk.
“I had to learn how to do everything because I was so sick,” he said. “I was literally dying.”
Now, Griffin is on the mend at home with his two cats, Butterball and Honey.
But the circumstances of his illness make leaving home difficult, which is where Kitchen Angels comes in.
“They’re absolutely essential. They’re like a major artery in the community,” he said.
Griffin and Garcia are just a few who stand to benefit from the Neighbor to Neighbor drive, which runs until Sept. 18.