Volunteers from The Food Depot deliver food at Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito Campus. Courtesy /NNMC
ESPAÑOLA — On the third Thursday of every month, volunteers from The Food Depot arrive early at Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito Campus. They set up tables while they wait for the truck to arrive, then unload food and begin filling boxes.
They pass boxes hand-to-hand out to the distribution area while volunteers register those lined up in their cars. At 10:30 a.m. they begin loading boxes of food into trunks and back seats. The food is usually gone by 11:30 a.m. and the volunteers break everything down and put it away.
Juanita Manzanares is the volunteer site supervisor for the El Rito distribution and for two additional mobile distribution sites. She began volunteering for The Food Depot mobile pantries seven or eight years ago and became site supervisor four years ago.
“We’re doing this to help people from Northern New Mexico get food on their tables. We do this to help feed Northern New Mexico,” Manzanares said. “It’s great to help the people in rural communities. They’re kind of limited here and they’re not able to go to Santa Fe where there’s more available. It helps get fresh produce and food to people who aren’t able to purchase stuff like that. So being able to do this for them, it really helps out their families.”
Rural Northern New Mexico has a high number of ‘food deserts’ where residents have limited access to full-service grocery stores that offer the fresh produce and affordable foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet. The Mobile Food Pantry provides nutritious food free of charge to families and individuals in need, improving the health and lives of the most vulnerable people of rural Northern New Mexico, many of them seniors and children. Last year, the Mobile Food Pantry served 16,471 households at 15 rural distributions sites.
In addition to serving approximately 80 people a month in El Rito, Manzanares oversees mobile food pantries in Ojo Caliente on the third Wednesday of the month and Chamita the fourth Monday. Volunteers range in age from 20 to their 70s, augmented by help from high school students from YouthBuild in Española. The El Rito volunteers are Annabelle Martinez, Alice Alire, Freddy Ocana, Larry and Heidi Tafoya, Henry Ocana, and Jose Perez and YouthBuild vocational teacher Terri Strauss and program director Marta Romero. Both of Juanita’s sons began volunteering as children, and her 20-year-old still helps out.
“If it weren’t for all these volunteers that give up their time and effort to do this it wouldn’t be possible, especially now during covid,” Manzanares said. “And it’s great to finally get younger kids out there to see what it takes to help the community. It helps us, because a lot of us, after moving boxes for so long, your back starts to hurt. When these younger people come in and help us it’s not so bad.”
Hunger is a growing crisis in Northern New Mexico, especially with the long-lasting ripple effects of COVID-19. One in seven New Mexican’s experience food insecurity, including one in every five children. The numbers were even higher in 2021, with one of every five people and one of every three children affected by food insecurity due to the pandemic. The Food Depot and its volunteers are dedicated to addressing that need and Northern New Mexico College is committed to providing that support for the El Rito community.
“For well over 113 years Northern New Mexico College, at our legacy campus in El Rito, has been in partnership with the Village of El Rito and surrounding communities. It is only fitting for Northern to continue to share facilities and serve as a resource for food distribution in collaboration with The Food Depot,” said President Bárbara Medina. “Those facing food insecurity, high gas prices, rural isolation and seniors for whom Española is too far away all benefit from the food distribution. During these challenging times Northern will continue to support and collaborate with our community partners. We are Northern. We have a ‘proud history, a strong future.’”
Manzanares and her volunteers were given the option to stop distribution during the pandemic. They decided to keep it going.
“We figured this is the time when our community needs us. This is the time when they need the food and we wanted to step up and help them,” Manzanares said. “A lot of people aren’t able to come out or go into town or are afraid to go into town. So this was our way of giving back to the community and helping them find food that they needed for their families.”
The volunteers follow COVID-safe practices. All are fully vaccinated and wear masks and gloves. Distribution is a no-contact drive through service. Manzanares has not been allowed to take on any new volunteers since the pandemic began but is very grateful for her cadre of steadfast volunteers and the high school students who contribute their time.
“We get positive feedback from all the locations,” Manzanares said. “People are happy that we’re able to do this for their community. That really makes us all feel good about it.
The El Rito Mobile Food Pantry is at 10:30 a.m. the third Thursday of every month. No pre-registration is required. The Food Depot is an Equal Opportunity provider. Food is distributed on a first come/first serve basis until food runs out. The Ojo Caliente and El Rito sites also distribute free cat and dog food through the Food 4 Pets program.
“So that’s able to help our four-legged friends,” Manzanares said. “The community’s grateful for that little bit of help, a bag of dogfood or a bag of cat food.”
The Mobile Food Pantries do not accept donations. Food and cash donations are accepted at The Food Depot, 1222 A Siler Road, Santa Fe, NM 87507, 505.471.1633 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Cash donations can also be made at their website, https://thefooddepot.org/.