Nicole Strother, right, and other Food Depot volunteers in November fill boxes with produce to be distributed to those in need. The coronavirus pandemic sparked a roughly 30 percent increase in demand for food and a decline in volunteers.

A line of cars stretches from Siler Road to Agua Fría Street at 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning outside The Food Depot. Maddy Skrak, 25, is equipped with a yellow reflective vest, a marker, a tally counter and a cup of coffee. So are the two other volunteers whose task it is to approach each car, provide volunteer-made masks if needed, count the number of people in need of food, write the number on the windshield and continue to the next vehicle.

Skrak, who began volunteering at The Food Depot at the start of the pandemic after she was laid off from her job, says the line has been “so reflective of where we [are] at with the pandemic.” Skrak says, “I felt like I was at the front lines of disaster relief” around this time last year.

Jill Dixon, the director of development at The Food Depot, says the pandemic has pushed the organization to evolve quickly. It sparked a roughly 30 percent increase in demand for food and a decline in volunteers. The Food Depot’s volunteer base was mostly older people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Skrak is one of over 600 new volunteers who have stepped up to help. She says that at the beginning of the pandemic, she questioned her safety as she interacted with hundreds of people, but she realized the need was tremendous.

“Someone has to do this work,” Skrak says.

Before the pandemic, The Food Depot distributed items to food pantries, but because of the unprecedented demand, it has expanded to run three of the biggest food pantries in Northern New Mexico.

In addition to observing the parallels between the community’s morale throughout the pandemic and the food line, Skrak, who is bilingual, also notes she has communicated approximately 80 percent in Spanish and 20 percent in English when talking with people in the food line. This is no coincidence. Food inequality is closely linked to other forms of inequity, including racial and environmental injustice, says V Quevedo, the policy and resource coordinator at La Semilla Food Center.

La Semilla Food Center works with New Mexicans to diverge from an oppressive history of food and farming within the United States by reclaiming cultural practices that were stolen or lost. Quevedo asserts that before colonization, food was abundant when Indigenous people were the stewards of their land. Now, food insecurity is over two times greater in non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic households than in white households in New Mexico, according to the United Health Foundation.

Quevedo views food deserts — areas in which healthy, fresh food is inaccessible to community members — as products of systemic racism. Quevedo calls it a “food apartheid,” a term coined by food justice advocate and farmer Karen Washington because the situation “exclude[s] Black and brown people from their ancestral food.” They say another way in which the food system is damaging to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) people is how redlining has forced minorities into areas vulnerable to pollution caused by extractive industries and large, unsustainable agriculture. Additionally, Quevedo notes many BIPOC people work within the food system and have been historically paid low and unfair wages.

Quevedo believes that although the food system has been exploitative of the land and BIPOC people in the past, “Ending hunger in New Mexico does not mean further exploitation.”

Quevedo says La Semilla is working to change the assumption that “you have to steal and abuse the land to grow food” by facilitating an apprenticeship program on its community farm in Anthony, N.M. La Semilla distributes produce from the farm and a dozen partner farms via weekly boxes that can be picked up curbside at the center or delivered.

The organization’s mobile market — a converted school bus — has been on pause since the pandemic began. La Semilla Food Center also holds platicás, or talks, and workshops for youth and the broader community to collaboratively reclaim knowledge about nutrition and how to grow food. Additionally, it works to achieve systemic change through political advocacy. Quevedo hopes the kids involved in the youth programs — and all youth in the region — will be able to choose what food they eat, and if they are not able to find it in the store, they will have the resources to grow it.

Advocating for local agriculture as a sustainable and equitable food source is viewed by some as part of the solution to food inequity. Helga Garcia-Garza, executive director of the Agri-Cultura Network, a cooperative of small, sustainable farms in Albuquerque, has a similar hope for the future. She says, “through COVID … we saw the many flaws of the global food system.”

Garcia-Garza says the Agri-Cultura Network is working toward a better system by developing a force of traditional farmers as well as helping strengthen peoples’ connection to the land, water, seed and community, and offering cooking classes with significance to cultures within New Mexico.

Garcia-Garza says her vision for the future is one where New Mexico is able to feed itself, produce doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles before making it to a plate and local farmers make a fair income. This future, she says, relies on the next generation, which is the goal behind the network’s Grow the Growers program, which trains six people to become paid farmers. After the course, they can apply to start their own farms on Bernallilo County Open Space land.

Schools are another avenue through which advocates are addressing food inequity and giving young people access to healthy foods. Pam Roy, executive director of Farm to Table New Mexico, is in part responsible for creating a push for local produce, like the fruit and vegetables grown by the farmers who were trained through Grow the Growers. She has worked for over 20 years to put local produce on students’ plates in schools across the state. Now, school districts can apply to receive a portion of the $400,000 annual budget the state reserves for schools to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables. Farm to Table is now working to replicate those efforts for elderly people as well, considering New Mexico has one of the fastest-growing senior populations in the country.

While the movement to address New Mexico’s food deserts grows, the pandemic continues to impact the need for distribution. “As the pandemic has eased up, people are feeling a little less tense,” Skrak said about her work in the food line, adding that The Food Depot has advanced its practices based on need.

But pandemic or not, the issue of hunger persists in New Mexico, and the need for distribution centers remains strong.

“We’re not … shutting down because we think [the pandemic] is over,” Dixon said. “We’re going to let the community need determine where and how we continue to serving [it].”

Aviva Nathan will attend United World College as a junior in the fall. Contact her at avivafnathan@gmail.com.

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