By Phill Casaus
Mar 26, 2022 Updated May 1, 2023

One of the gutsier moves around Santa Fe in the past several months took place at The Food Depot, which for years has been fighting to stave off hunger in Northern New Mexico with persistence, pluck and a near-maniacal devotion to mission.

No one can argue the organization is unsuccessful: It distributed 10.5 million pounds of food in 2021, averaging about 737,627 meals each month. In a part of the world wracked by poverty and pandemic, it answered the call throughout the crisis. People worked through vacations and days off; badly needed if not life-giving food deliveries were made on weekends. Sacrifices, big and small, were real.

“I’m so proud of us and our staff,” said Food Depot Deputy Director Jill Dixon, assessing the past two years. “The Food Depot came and stood up for the community. And I stand by that. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do it better.”

And so, with those words echoing every day, comes a very large and daunting next step. With plenty of introspection and little fanfare, The Food Depot basically tore up its old model of operation and said, more or less: Let’s really aim big.

In the coming months and years, The Food Depot — its fiscal year ’22 budget is $8.1 million — plans to change how it operates, transforming from an organization that largely provided “indirect service” to one that aggressively and strategically seeks out hunger in a hands-on way with better-aimed efforts.

In short, The Food Depot is not merely going to deliver food, Dixon said. It’s going to seek more information from its clients about what the “right” food is and creatively figure out ways to make sure those offerings get into the right hands at the right time.

Coming in July, to Española: the launch of a free grocery store concept that will have items hungry people can select as if they were going to Smith’s or Albertsons. That doesn’t mean Casita de Comida will have the selection a regular store would provide, but it will offer more options and opportunities to those who need them. The pilot, assuming it’s successful, could roll out at a later date to other cities as well, including Santa Fe, Las Vegas, N.M., and Raton.

Coming in 2023: a contraption known as Foodmobile Dos, the next generation of the depot’s Big Blue Bus that delivered food to hungry communities in the area. The bus is nice, Dixon says, but the next iteration is a custom-ordered semi-trailer, with 900 square feet of interior space that can serve 250 households as soon as it pulls into a parking lot, or in the case of a lot of Northern New Mexico locales, dirt road.

Under a new strategic plan, approved by The Food Depot’s board of directors, the new way of doing business is extensive and more involved than just those two examples, Dixon said. But it’s indicative of the changes — both in thought and action — wrought by the pandemic.

Dixon said the first signs that change would be coming arrived when many of The Food Depot’s partners — often, nonprofits that relied on older volunteers to take Food Depot offerings and get them to clients — could not actually deliver the food due to the health risks.

“We ran into the ‘How is food going to get to Mora County this month?’ thing,” Dixon recounted. “If the one person who executes it gets COVID, what do you do?”

But there were other signs as well. One came home to Dixon as she spoke with an elderly woman about a food distribution during the pandemic. The woman was grateful and thankful because she, like all too many in this country, didn’t have another option. But the apples Dixon provided? She couldn’t eat them because of the state of her teeth.

“It makes you take a step back,” Dixon said. “We had done so much in terms of logistics … we’d loaded thousands of pounds of food. But never for a second did I think: Is this food right for the people we’re serving?”

Going forward, she said, The Food Depot plans to talk with its food recipients, hear them out, about the food they need, not just the food they get. Simple questions, such as, “If you could choose 10 items, what would they be?” could help the organization make better choices on where, when and how to help. And with the difficulties faced by nonprofits during the pandemic, The Food Depot may have to lead the charge on hunger, not just be the armory.

Northern New Mexico’s food bank is not the first in the country to give this new reality a whirl; the ideas have been tried outside the state. But in a place where hurdles are high and real, the thought that The Food Depot would eschew safety for ambition is laudable. Not everyone would try it.

“Our discomfort,” Dixon replies, “is in the best interest of people who are trusting us.”

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican