Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series about dealing with hunger in Northern New Mexico.
Across the city, we’ve been seeing signs the pandemic is ending: kids playing, unmasked, in parks; restaurants reopening; newspapers celebrating our state’s vaccination rate. At The Food Depot, the food bank serving Northern New Mexico, noticeably fewer people have been attending drive-thru food distributions recently, compared to the first quarter of 2021. As our community transitions from “pandemic emergency mode” back to some semblance of normalcy, the city and the country as a whole have the opportunity to rethink what “normal” should look like.
Even before the pandemic, stagnant wages and a rapidly rising cost of living were putting enormous financial strain on middle- and low-income families. Santa Fe’s minimum wage of $12.32 per hour falls short of the wage that is necessary to afford all basic living expenses in the city. That’s estimated to be $30.10 per hour for a single adult with one child, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator. As a result, many working families were one paycheck away from turning to food pantries, even before the pandemic hit. That’s not the normal many of us want to return to.
Although federal nutrition programs have been bolstered during the pandemic, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are almost never enough to enable people to buy nutritious food for themselves and their families. But expanding SNAP only scratches the surface of what is necessary to create a just food system in this country. Better regulations are needed to reverse dangerous levels of corporate consolidation and prevent large agribusinesses from polluting neighboring communities, harming the environment and endangering consumer health.
To ensure everyone working in the food industry has access to good food themselves, legislation is needed to better guarantee the rights of workers, particularly undocumented workers, in farms, slaughterhouses, restaurants and grocery stores to be well paid, to have safe working conditions and to be able to collectively bargain with their employers.
That’s not to mention all the policy changes that, although not explicitly related to food and agriculture, could significantly strengthen food security.
Among the most urgent: building high-quality affordable housing; passing immigration reform so our neighbors aren’t excluded from most of the job market; raising the minimum wage; funding public schools equitably; establishing universal health care coverage so families aren’t bankrupted by one emergency room visit; and creating good-paying jobs in the green energy, film and ecotourism industries that have potential in New Mexico.
The Food Depot has seen lines of hundreds of cars at food distribution sites this past year. I don’t want this to be another instance in which a temporary (albeit extremely necessary) emergency measure to get food into people’s hands becomes institutionalized and substituted for lasting policy changes that eliminate poverty and redistribute wealth — changes that are beyond the scope of a 600-word My View but not beyond the capabilities of dedicated policymakers, activists and community leaders.
It’s critical that society stops framing food assistance as a gift or charity for those who are in need. Food is a human right, and the fact that food banks have reason to exist is a sad indictment of the economic and political systems that have generated massive inequality in wealth and power while failing to guarantee the most basic standard of living for many.
Despite knowing The Food Depot will be responding to the economic impact of the pandemic for years, I remain hopeful this moment can be a turning point where, despite the pain, loss and uncertainty of the past year, we reimagine the society that could be rebuilt from the aftermath of this crisis and, together, design something new and more just.