By Daniel J. Chacón – dchacon@sfnewmexican.com

Updated Mar 15, 2024

The line of motorists stretched down Siler Road by the time Edna Reyes-Wilson showed up at The Food Depot’s drive-thru food distribution at 6:45 a.m. Thursday.

“The people that are first in line are here since 3:30, 4 o’clock in the morning,” said Reyes-Wilson, who has been volunteering at the Santa Fe-based food bank since 2018.

“A lot of them come in their pajamas,” she said as she queried drivers on the number of households they were picking up food for and the number of people in each household. “They’ve got their blankets and their pillows, but they want to be sure they can get what they can get.”

The demand for food has showed few signs of slowing since the pandemic, a signal people are continuing to struggle to recover and facing other economic pressures, from high food prices to the exorbitant cost of living in Santa Fe.

“It’s definitely not as high today as it was in 2020 but … there’s definitely some spikes that have been noticeable over the past year, and it’s higher maybe than you would expect,” said Jill Dixon, who is taking over as The Food Depot’s executive director in July.

“Some of the compounding factors that we’re seeing are certainly just persistent increased costs, particularly around food,” she said. “Ultimately, the big story there is just the story we all know but maybe don’t want to admit: The cost of living for a basic-needs budget generally exceeds peoples’ income. We know that housing costs are astronomical, but food costs have gone up approximately 22% since the previous year, so it’s pretty bleak.”

The ongoing demand for food comes as the New Mexico Human Services Department continues to grapple with a high volume of renewal applications for food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, amid an unwinding of pandemic-era benefits.

The SNAP renewals coincided with renewals of the Medicaid program, both of which were performed automatically during the pandemic. Some 500,000 New Mexicans receive SNAP benefits and about 1 million are on Medicaid.

Department spokeswoman Marina Piña said it’s taking about 30 days to process what she called SNAP emergency applications and almost two months to process the regular applications.

But relief is in sight, she said.

“We are at the very end of the Medicaid unwinding period,” she said, referring to the end of continuous Medicaid enrollment required under pandemic-era regulations. “Once we finalize that period, we’re going to start seeing a more steady workflow of processing applications.”

New Mexico has long had one of the highest rates of food insecurity, particularly among children, in the country. Feeding America’s 2023 “Map the Meal Gap” report showed a 13.5% overall food insecurity rate in the state, the seventh-highest in the country behind a handful of Southern states, and at more than 19% the second-highest rate of food insecurity among children, behind only Louisiana.

While the problem is most pronounced in rural New Mexico, even relatively urban counties like Bernalillo and Doña Ana report food insecurity rates above the national average.

The Food Depot distributes food in what the organization calls a drive-thru pantry from 7-9 a.m. every other Thursday.

During Thursday’s distribution, the organization provided food, from fresh strawberries and frozen blueberries to 5-pound sacks of potatoes and canned goods, to 604 households and a total of 3,740 individuals.

“That’s more individuals, but a few less households, than our last distribution,” Amanda Bregel, The Food Depot’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email afterward.

The steady stream of people seeking food included young and old, men and women and a smattering of drivers with license plates from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. During the 8-9 a.m. hour, many of the motorists spoke only Spanish.

Some motorists arrived in beat-up old cars with broken windshields and babies in the back seat while others drove up in luxury vehicles, including a Lexus and a shiny Humvee.

The Food Depot asks motorists only how many families they’re picking up food for and the number of people in each family. Neither identification nor proof of income are required.

“The truth is that not a single one of us has any idea who owns that car that that person is driving, whether or not it’s the person that needs the food assistance or someone who’s picking up on behalf of someone who needs help,” Dixon said. “We have no idea whether that person bought that car with cash and their circumstances changed afterwards … and it may be all they have.”

The question about people who show up in expensive cars to pick up free food, which others ask, “reveals a fundamental flaw in our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another person,” she said.

Around Thanksgiving, Dixon said she worked at a food bank in Arizona handing out turkeys with a Spanish-speaking woman showed up in a “really sweet” Audi SUV.

“She was starting to cry, and she said, ‘Please, please know that the car is not mine,’” she said.

When the woman popped the trunk open, “there were all these bags of groceries” from a fine foods grocery store in the back. The woman, Dixon said, explained the car and groceries belonged to “la jefa,” or her boss.

“She was like, ‘She sent me to go grocery shopping for her family’s Thanksgiving stuff. Now I’m just trying to stop here so I can have groceries for my family before I go home,’ ” Dixon recalled.

Dixon said The Food Depot’s food distribution is “definitely a no-questions-asked food pantry,” though the organization does ask how many people are in a household and how many households the driver is picking food up for as part of its data collection.

“We only allow one car to pick up for two households,” she said. “It’s very, very common for a household to be picking up for a neighbor, a parent, a friend, another family member.”

The drive-thru distribution now held at the organization’s warehouse off Siler Road was started by a now-defunct group called Feeding Santa Fe.

“It was an organization that gave away about 150 uniform parcels of food, so everybody got two cans of this, two cans of that, a thing of pasta, a thing of pasta sauce and most of that food was provided by The Food Depot, but they also did some purchasing and did their own fundraising,” Dixon said. “That was an organization that’s a really good example of organizations that didn’t survive the pandemic due to the average age of their volunteers and just an inability to scale to meet the growing demand.”

Since then, demand for food has ebbed and flowed, but the constant is that it remains steady.

During the pandemic, The Food Depot served between 700 and 900 households during distribution days, though there were a couple of “peak moments” where it served 1,000 households. The number dropped in 2021 but started rise in 2022, which correlated with an increase in food prices, Dixon said.

“We’re sitting pretty solidly [at] about 600 households per distribution now, which is unbelievably higher than it ever was for Feeding Santa Fe,” she said.

Deja Thomas, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, said she didn’t know about The Food Depot’s drive-thru pantry until she moved into the income-restricted Siler Yard apartments around December 2021 and noticed a line of people.

“My roommate and I started lining up at 6 a.m.,” she said.

Thomas, 27, who was handing out food Thursday, said she started volunteering at The Food Depot to express her appreciation and help the community.

“They allow me to pick up some food, and I just drive it over with my wagon,” she said. “It’s been great. It’s been really helpful to supplement how much food we have because we’re both low-income, and we can still afford some groceries, but this really helps, especially with staples.”

Original Article Link: https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/santa-fe-food-bank-still-drawing-long-lines-amid-economic-pressures/article_24d5cd0a-e18e-11ee-a320-0b2215e77609.html

Volunteer Richard Martinez loads strawberries as volunteers shuttle boxes of food for a line of cars stretching down Siler Road during the The Food Depot's drive-thru food distribution Thursday. The demand for food hasn't let up since the pandemic, a sign people are continuing to struggle to recover while facing economic pressures like high food prices and housing costs in Santa Fe. Jim Weber/The New Mexican