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Factors combine to boost hunger across Southern New Mexico

Photo 1: Volunteers work to distribute baskets of food to clients at Casa de Peregrinos emergency food pantry in Las Cruces, New Mexico in late July 2023. Advocates say they’re seeing more demand across Southern New Mexico for food assistance because of several factors, including a decline in COVID-19 relief programs and higher grocery store prices. Photo by Diana Alba Soular/ SNMJC
Diana Alba Soular/ SNMJC
Photo 1: Volunteers work to distribute baskets of food to clients at Casa de Peregrinos emergency food pantry in Las Cruces, New Mexico in late July 2023. Advocates say they’re seeing more demand across Southern New Mexico for food assistance because of several factors, including a decline in COVID-19 relief programs and higher grocery store prices. Photo by Diana Alba Soular/ SNMJC

SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO – A perfect storm of factors appears to be driving extra demand for food assistance across the southern half of the state. 

First, in line with the federal government’s declared end of the pandemic emergency, financial aid to families for food via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits program – often called food stamps – sharply declined at the end of February. Secondly, inflation and steep rising costs of food, rent and utilities have squeezed household budgets. Plus, advocates say there’s a backlog at the state level in processing new SNAP applications. 

And when families can’t afford food out of their own budgets, they seek help from another safety net: food pantries. But several pantry organizers said their operations are strained. They’re receiving less food than during the height of the pandemic. That’s mainly because a significant food-pantry program geared to alleviate hunger during COVID-19 has ended. 

The most recent numbers about food insecurity in New Mexico stem from 2021, but officials with Roadrunner Food Bank, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that supplies food to smaller pantries throughout Southern New Mexico, have been hearing accounts of increased need among residents. Some families are seeking food assistance for the first time ever. 

Here are some snapshots from across Southern New Mexico. 

Some food pantries strained in Doña Ana County 

In the state’s second-largest city, Las Crucens are feeling the pain of higher prices and curtailed pandemic financial aid, which in turn is straining some local food pantries. 

The Salvation Army of Las Cruces, working from a local church, distributes carts of food once a week to about 70-75 residents and families. But Capt. Michael Evans said he’s seen a notable spike in the numbers of people seeking help.

“We’ve seen an increase in the number of people needing food boxes, and it’s not just the food boxes,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of people needing rent and utilities assistance because people aren’t being able to pay their rent or make their utilities because they’re spending an increased amount of money on food.” 

While the pantry has tried to accommodate this increase by packing a few extra carts for each distribution event, “we’re still turning away about 10 or 15 people each week,” Evans said, noting that personnel refer those turned away to other local food pantries who might be able to serve them. 

Las Crucen Marcine Cunningham recently visited Casa de Peregrinos, a major pantry in the city. She’s 82 and still works as a telemarketer because she and her husband don’t feel financially secure. 

“I’m not retired, but I want to be,” said Cunningham, as she pushed her cart of groceries to her car. 

It was her first time ever getting food assistance. She was referred to the pantry by someone who works there. Asked if grocery prices were a factor in her decision to seek help, she didn’t hesitate to respond: “Yeah – it’s doubled, tripled.” 

Indeed, Evans said he’s seeing a lot more first-time food pantry clients. It’s noticeable, he noted, because people seem embarrassed. But he encouraged people not to feel ashamed.

“Everybody at some point in their life needs help, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he said. 

The cost of food has skyrocketed in recent years. From July 2021 to July 2022, food prices rose nearly 11%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the following year, which ended a few weeks ago in July, they increased another 5%. Those increases were on top of earlier pandemic spikes. When SNAP benefits were elevated during the pandemic, that helped to curb some demand, according to Evans. 

“But now that the SNAP benefits are going away, the demand is going up,” he said.

 Casa de Peregrinos, a major food pantry and distribution hub in Las Cruces, is accepting client referrals from other pantries. So far, it’s been able to accommodate the demand it’s seeing. 

In Sunland Park, located in far Southern Doña Ana County, the main nonprofit providing food baskets to residents has seen demand for help soar.

By Diana Alba Soular/ Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative

 
In Luna County, some families line up at 3 a.m. for food help 

In the border village of Columbus, families begin lining up as early as 3 a.m. for boxes of food on the third Friday of each month. They wait in a line of vehicles that winds around a few blocks of unpaved roads all the way to New Mexico Highway 11 and volunteers go car by car, screening each carload for eligibility: Do they receive federal benefits such as SNAP? Do they have children qualifying for free school lunches? Are they eligible for assistance based on low income? 

A truck arrives at the Mimbres Valley Learning Center around 9 a.m. from the Roadrunner Food Bank, and a corps of volunteers goes to work packing individual boxes with what organizer Maria Constantine says is “about a week’s worth of groceries,” including frozen meat, fresh produce and dairy products. 

The Columbus volunteers recently increased their request to the food bank based on growing need in the village and across Luna County, from a quantity sufficient for 100 families to 150. On Aug. 18, the volunteers stretched out their supplies to serve 180 families before everything was gone. 

At The Well in Deming, a nonprofit that distributes 150 boxes of food every week, Director Lynsey Davis said her volunteers were also stretching supplies, sometimes distributing 700 boxes per month. Other local nonprofits, like Colores United and the Play Sharity Children’s Museum, are serving growing numbers of visitors at their food events. 

Davis likened Luna County’s efforts to mediate food insecurity to “fighting a sandstorm with an umbrella — you can protect the people you can get under your umbrella, but it doesn’t really help anyone on the outside.” 

Luna County’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, typically the highest in New Mexico, was 8.7 percent in July, down a percentage point from June with hundreds more people listed as employed over the month. The county’s unemployment rate is higher than the 7.7 percent in July 2022, while its total estimated labor force has increased by 730 people, per data from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. 

Despite more people working, Davis argued economic headwinds were still fanning food insecurity in a year that saw inflation, an end to COVID-19-related supplemental SNAP benefits, a spike in natural gas prices last winter and a long-running heat wave this summer that drove household electricity bills skyward. 

“More and more of the people we’re seeing, it’s not just your lower income people that are on food stamps and whatnot,” she said. “Right now, we’re getting the middle class, the people that kind of get stuck in the in-betweens: They make a little too much on paper to get government benefits, but then they don’t make enough to pay for their food and their gas, prices of living, things like that.” 

Davis and the Columbus volunteers also noted a visible increase in senior citizens among their clients, some of whom have custody of grandchildren or are simply dealing with rising costs of living on fixed incomes. 

By Algernon D’Ammassa, The Deming Headlight

Access to help a big barrier in Otero County

In Otero County, the number of resources available is not the biggest problem in terms of food insecurity; the problem is access, according to Jennifer Gruger.

Gruger is the supervisor of Community Connections, a department of Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center made up of a group of community health workers who help eliminate barriers to health care. Food insecurity is a big part of those barriers, she said.

“The Roadrunner Bank is incredibly good at distribution, and the churches are generous, providing food boxes and meals,” she said. “The problem is access – connecting people with those services.”

She said for many homebound people, or those struggling with income and transportation, delivery and pick up is a challenge. There are services, like Christ Community Church, a Roadrunner distribution point, which provides food boxes to 150 households a month and have volunteers to deliver the boxes to homes. But that is the exception, and most places can’t provide delivery.

So, if just one church has enough to feed 150 households, and you multiply that by all the places distributing food, mostly provided by Roadrunner, about 16 around the county, that is the volume of food available and distributed, according to Kam Portillo, the chair of 100 Percent Otero Food Team. But getting that food to the people who need it is sometimes a challenge.

Gruger said in the Community Connections database, they keep track of the primary needs people call them about. Of the 400 times they served clients since the beginning of the program (a year and a half ago), a third of them were about food insecurity. She said the primary source of clients at the program are referrals from medical providers.

“The way that presents itself sometimes,” she said, “Is somebody will miss an appointment and say: ‘I don’t have transportation’ or ‘I had to choose between feeding my family or a co-pay.’”

Gruger said many of the people reaching out to her department looking for help are additionally experiencing the challenge that SNAP benefits have reverted to pre-COVID amounts.

“The SNAP benefits changed rapidly and dramatically,” she said. “Families suddenly returned to what they were getting before COVID. We are getting calls for help with renewing SNAP benefits and getting access to food pantry food.”

Also, according to Portillo, while food opportunities exist, Otero County is still a food desert and there is limited access to high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables.

Portillo talks with people, particularly those with or at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, about the importance of good nutrition. The trend to eating dollar store foods is not healthy.

“They need good quality groceries, but those are more expensive than they should be,” she said.

Portillo said 100 Percent Otero participated in FreshRX, a program where medical providers can prescribe fresh produce and give out vouchers for local farmer’s markets. Unfortunately the sources are limited, and the farmer’s markets have to be willing to participate. Only one of them in the Alamogordo area participates, and produce has also been affected by the heat of the year.

Individuals don’t have to be patients at the hospital to reach out to Community Connections or 100 Percent Otero for help and resources. Anybody can do so. Call 575-446-5771 to connect.

 — By Elva K. Österreich/ The Las Cruces Bulletin

Hunger still a concern in Southeast NM, despite low unemployment 

Low unemployment rates in two Southeast New Mexico counties have not lessened food insecurity, said the new commander of the Salvation Army in Roswell. 

Chaves County had an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent at the end of July of this year, according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS). Located in the oil-rich Permian Basin, Eddy County had a 3.3 percent unemployment at the end of July, per NMDWS.

Maj. Scott Ramsey said the Roswell Salvation Army provides food assistance in 13 counties in eastern and southeastern New Mexico. 

Chaves County, the most populous county in Southeast New Mexico, had a population of 65,157, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. It has a food insecurity rate of 14 percent, according to data from Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization. 

The cost per meal in Chaves County was $3.44, and the annual food budget shortfall for the county was $5.5 million, according to Feeding America. 

Ramsey said the Salvation Army receives help from a number of government and private sources including Roadrunner Foodbank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). 

CFSP works to improve the health of low-income elderly persons at least 60 years of age by supplementing diets with nutritious foods, cited a USDA website. 

Ramsey said senior citizens stop by the Salvation Army Food Pantry at 207 East Chisum regularly for CFSP boxes. 

Eddy County has a population of 62,314 per the 2020 U.S. Census and an 11.5 percent food insecurity percentage, per Feeding America. The average meal cost in Eddy County is $3.54, and $4.3 million in extra money was needed to meet needs. 

Ramsey said the Salvation Army provides regular food service to the Eddy County communities of Artesia and Carlsbad. 

“We do tailgating distribution,” he said. “Seniors meet us. Seniors that fall under the poverty level could be part of this program,” he said of the CFSP. 

Ramsey has been in Roswell for nearly a month and served with the Salvation Army in the State of Washington and the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. 

He said Mesa, Arizona might have a larger population than Roswell. But the need for food is great no matter where people are. 

“People live on the edge on the edge on a regular basis, and it doesn’t take much to push you off,” Ramsey said. 

He said food banks make a difference between paydays for some people. 

“The money doesn’t make it until the end of the month,” Ramsey said. 

He said food boxes have plenty of nutrition and protein compared to previous years when boxes contained lentil beans and noodles. 

Ramsey said volunteers and donations are always welcome for the Salvation Army.

“We will never turn down a donation,” he said.
 
Ramsey said proceeds from the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Roswell aids with the food program. 

Donations may be made online at givesalvationarmyusa.org or people can mail donations to the Salvation Army in 612 West Boulevard, Roswell, 88201. 

By Mike Smith/ Carlsbad Current-Argus 

The Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative is covering pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens. For more info visit, SouthNMnews.org or SurNMnoticias.org.

For help finding food assistance, visit: https://www.rrfb.org/find-help/find-food/

Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens.