Hunger Pains Sos!

Covid-19 Response Makes Us Look Like A Banana Republic

Gwynne Ann Unruh
7 min read
Roadrunner truck
Long lines have become the normal for Roadrunner to handle. (Clarke Condé)
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Our nation’s people are increasingly ill, hungry and homeless. Someone you know is hungry right now. Many of your neighbors in New Mexico are an illness, an accident or an unexpected auto repair away from needing food assistance. Currently, New Mexico ranks among the worst in the nation for hunger, for both children and adults. Food banks are seeing an average increase of 50 percent in the number of people served compared to this time last year. Feeding America’s latest food bank survey, based on preliminary data, estimates an additional 17 million people, or around 54 million people (one in six) total, in the United States could become food insecure in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

Statistics compiled by the Food Research Action Center, NM Dept. of Health and the US Dept. of Agriculture show that 25 percent of New Mexico children lack regular access to healthy food, must skip meals or experience hunger—the highest rate of child food insecurity in the nation. In addition 33 percent of children living in McKinley County suffer from food insecurity—almost twice the national average. It’s also worth noting that 685,385 New Mexicans live in a “food desert”—an area where it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food—which contributes to higher rates of food insecurity within tribal, rural and frontier communities.

High rates of food insecurity have existed in New Mexico long before the coronavirus pandemic. Every week nearly 70,000 New Mexicans seek food assistance. That’s comparable to a city the size of Santa Fe needing assistance every week. We are a state full of “working poor” that, pre-COVID-19, earned a little too much to get SNAP (formerly food stamps) and other social support programs but still struggled to put food on the table and had absolutely nothing set aside to pay for medical bills, car repairs or a reduction in hours at work. The pandemic has left many families wondering where their next meal might come from or if they will be homeless next week.

Food insecurity research and statistics bring home the message of how abysmally food insecure New Mexico is. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the members of households seeking food assistance are children under the age of 18. Of the people seeking food assistance, 61 percent are senior citizens in New Mexico. Many households report that, in the previous year, they had to choose between buying food or paying utilities. Of this group 33 percent reported that they have to make this tough choice every month. Meanwhile 48 percent of households report having to choose between paying their rent or mortgage or buying food; for 19 percent of this group, it was a choice they had to make every month.

While thousands of New Mexicans receive assistance through SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), those funds only provide 2.3 weeks of groceries. For now, all many who are hungry can do is get in line for free packaged breakfasts and lunches for their kids through schools, purchase unhealthy fast food to have at least some food in their household, skip their own meals to feed their kids dinner, pick up a box of free food from the food bank, turn to emergency food pantries and soup kitchens, or contemplate going to a shelters where they will give you three meals a day.

Down in southern New Mexico, the Silver City Gospel Mission’s executive director Amy Wagner said that since the shutdown of schools and businesses in mid-March, the need for food boxes has risen by 99 percent. “Since January first we have served 4166 meals to go and 2488 food boxes. We usually receive an abundant quality and quantity of food from local grocery stores.” Due to COVID-19 Wagner says the stores are selling out of items quickly. “We have had to purchase extra food to add to the stocks that we procure through Roadrunner Food Bank via Feeding America.” The mission is asking for donations of nonperishable canned and boxed food items to assist in filling the food boxes.

Due to COVID-19 the mission’s thrift store is currently closed, and they are not accepting any clothing donations; household items must be sprayed with a vinegar or bleach-water mix or other disinfectant mist. “We are losing revenue daily not having the thrift store open. With those monies we usually purchase food stocks, pay utilities and payroll; any dollar amount donated would be greatly appreciated,” Wagner said.

Elma Reynalds, CEO of Joy Junction shelter in Albuquerque’s South Valley said the organization is getting fewer homeless, because the state is requiring negative results from a COVID-19 test. “You can’t come in unless they’ve been tested and are negative. We have families and elderly at the shelter and most of them have underlying health issues,” she explained. The shelter refers applicants to various places to stay while they wait for the results of their COVID-19 test. If the test is negative, Joy Junction will pick them up and bring them to the shelter.

Joy Junction Shelter currently has 100 people staying full time, even though they can shelter over 300. Reynalds said another reason their numbers are low right now is because of the stimulus checks. The money provided many in the shelter with a month’s rent and necessary deposits to get their own home. Reynalds said the numbers will go up moving into the fall, with many of them people who have been going in and out of homelessness.

When the pandemic started, Reynalds said she was scared that they would not be able to procure enough food for Joy Junction. “When COVID started we were panicking wondering how we are going to get food, but we were blessed with so many food donations. It’s not something that we have had to really worry about, and hopefully it will continue like this.”

“The majority of the food we use at the shelter is from donations from individuals and businesses,” Reynalds said. “We have a big supporter in Trader Joe’s. Every night our driver or one of our employees will go there to pick up food. The other part of our food needs we buy from Roadrunner [Food Bank] because it is cheaper.”

“Right now we are running the internal workings of the shelter strictly with staff and the residents, no volunteers,” Reynalds explained. “Residents are helping the new people who come in, serving meals or helping with whatever else needs to be done at the shelter.” The shelter is accepting volunteers, but only to help with cleaning outside the property, as they are basically quarantined inside. “We are grateful and thankful for the community that continues to support us, because we receive no government funding and only depend on private donations from individuals, business organizations and churches. It’s 34 years now that Joy Junction has been open, and we are growing,” she said.

Help is available in your community if you are hungry at food banks across the state of New Mexico. Call before going to receive food, as place and times may change. Bring a photo ID or some paperwork showing you live in the zip code where the food bank is located. Bring your own bags or boxes in case they may not have boxes or bags to place food in. Arrange transportation in advance. Food banks do not deliver. Seniors, the disabled, the medically frail or those on Medicaid may be able to qualify for a reduced fare or no-cost transportation. You can locate
a food bank in your area at
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