Volunteer Edgar Talavera, left, and Adrian Sotelo, site coordinator at Capital High School with Communities In Schools, load up a volunteer driver's car Wednesday. Communities In Schools has been delivering about 5,000 meals per week to 300 families who are unable to pick up food at schools. Photo by Luis Sanchez Saturno / The New Mexican
Public schools and food banks have been providing thousands of take-home meals each week in Santa Fe as the pandemic-related shutdown puts an increasing strain on households.
But not everyone in need of food has been able to participate in scheduled pickups.
Some lack a working vehicle, funds for gasoline or free time to take advantage of the distributions. Others are confined to their homes because of medical conditions.
Two Santa Fe-based nonprofits, Communities In Schools and The Food Depot, have begun delivering goods to those who can’t reach distribution sites, such as rural residents without transportation, families living in poverty and homebound seniors.
“Through direct delivery, we’ve been able to mitigate some barriers to food, which especially right now is really a life-and-death situation for families,” said Julia Bergen, executive director of Communities In Schools.
“Plenty of families don’t have transportation, or there’s a health issue where they can’t leave the house,” she said.
Santa Fe Public Schools has been distributing about 9,610 free meals a week during its drive-thru breakfast and lunch services on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at a variety of campuses. That’s on par with the district’s usual summer meal program — but far fewer free meals than the district serves to students at school sites during a normal week of operation.
While fewer families than expected have been lining up for free meals at schools, demand for food aid across the city has increased dramatically during the economic shutdown that began last month in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“It does worry me that we have not seen too high of a demand for take-home meals,” Superintendent Veronica García said. “Lots of kids have parents who are essential workers; others don’t have car. There are lots of reasons families can’t come to pick up food.”
Jill Dixon, The Food Depot’s director of development, said the nonprofit, which usually supplies other organizations throughout the region with loads of food for distribution, has switched gears during the pandemic to offer bags of groceries to a growing number of local families struggling with job losses and wage cuts.
Demand at a Thursday morning food distribution site increased to over 3,200 people recently from around 1,200 in previous weeks, Dixon said, and on Saturday, the nonprofit passed out enough bags of groceries to feed 3,900 people.
Through a new home-delivery program for seniors, she said, the food bank will reach an additional 600 households per week.
“Demand has exploded exponentially. That’s the only way to describe it,” Dixon said. “It’s incredibly intense because pretty universally, everybody we work with takes the responsibility of keeping families fed incredibly seriously. “
Some families with school-age kids will soon be able to access new federal food aid, which might ease the burden on nonprofits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that New Mexico participants of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, could be eligible for additional benefits to offset the cost of free meals their children would have been served at school.
New Mexico is one of a dozen states approved for the Pandemic EBT program.
The state Human Services Department also announced earlier this month that SNAP participants in the state who hadn’t been receiving the program’s maximum benefits would be given an enhanced payment to help during the shutdown.
Still, organizations continue ramping up efforts to fill gaps in need.
Communities In Schools, which works with some of Santa Fe Public Schools’ lowest-income students, has been delivering about 5,000 meals per week to 300 families who are unable to pick up food at campus pickup sites.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but we’ve been able to identify families who can’t just drive to pick up food,” Bergen said. “If they have food and a stable home life, then that gives kids a chance to focus on learning.”