Two years ago, in March 2020, Delfine Gabaldon visited a food pantry for the first time. He’d been laid off from work at the start of the coronavirus lockdown and didn’t know how he would make ends meet.
For 32 years, Delfine had worked as a mechanic. “I loved the job so much, I’d almost do it for free,” he said. But the 51-year old had recently lost several toes to type 2 diabetes, and nerve damage from the disease made walking difficult. These days, he could only stand for 15 minutes at a time before the pain became unbearable, and when he lay down, he got vertigo.
“I spin the wheel every morning I get up, depending on whether I’m gonna have nausea or my feet are going to affect me all day,” he said. But losing his toes had been a wake-up call. Delfine described decades of fast-food that he ate out of pure convenience: It was cheap, convenient, and moreover, a burger was what everyone at the shop grabbed for lunch.
Now unemployed, Delfine was uncertain how he was going to feed himself and his family. His sister is a nurse, and they both help care for their aging parents who live nearby in Albuquerque.
So Delfine searched for a food pantry and, one morning, pulled into the drive-through line at the nearby Rio Grande Food Project. “I was embarrassed the first time. I was scared as hell,” he recalled. “Because I knew my whole world and mentality were reduced to a different level.”
But he’s returned every week since, impressed by the healthy items and the on-site garden. He calls Wednesday mornings “Trader Joe’s days,” adding that he hadn’t been able to afford such food even before he went on disability. “Bologna, ham, cheese, stuff that was easy to slap together,” Delfine tallied, describing his long-time grocery list. Never vegetables. But now, for the first time, he is a food pantry “client,” eating healthier and managing his disease.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it created a food emergency of epic proportions.
But it had strong silver linings: People like Delfine learned how to access healthier food in their daily lives. And it forced food, health and agriculture organizations to scramble, causing them to rethink how to get food to those in need, with new collaboration and innovation that has the potential to transform New Mexico’s struggle with food insecurity.
Hunger widespread in New Mexico
New Mexico has long ranked near the bottom of states in numbers of people, particularly children, who don’t know where their next meal will come from.
High rates of food insecurity are “proxy data” for poverty and unemployment, said Kendal Chavez, the food and hunger coordinator for the governor’s office, drawing a link between hunger and poverty in one of the nation’s poorest states.
And when families need to purchase necessities with limited income, they often struggle to access healthier foods that allay chronic nutrition-related disease.
It’s cheaper and more efficient to eat fast food or packaged meals than to purchase fresh food and prepare a meal from scratch. To make ends meet, one person might work several jobs, especially if they need to support a family. They may not have time to cook meals with healthier ingredients that are more expensive in the first place.
It’s no wonder, then, that nutrition-related diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension strike some communities more than others. The results can be severe. These health conditions help explain the disproportionate COVID-19 death toll among lower-income, Native American, and other communities of color, where food insecurity is most prevalent.
COVID-19 epidemiology reports from the New Mexico Department of Health show that 72% of people who’ve died from the disease had at least one underlying condition, and an outsized mortality rate in low-income and communities of color. In New Mexico, Native Americans have a mortality rate nearly five times and Hispanics nearly double that of White people.
Although these are separate data points — deaths with underlying conditions, versus mortality rates by race and ethnicity — they are “absolutely connected,” said Emily Wildau, research and policy analyst at New Mexico Voices for Children.
“Communities of color tend to have higher rates of many chronic illnesses, and in much the same way that nutrition-related chronic diseases disproportionately impact these communities, they are more likely to face a variety of negative social determinants of health overall,” she explained.
Lack of access to healthy foods, higher rates of pollution, barriers to quality housing and medical care, and other aspects of poverty can influence a person’s long-term health outcomes.
Susan Perry is a counseling psychologist who worked as a diabetes educator in rural New Mexico for 18 years. She teaches people about nutrition and the medical effects of stress, which affects vulnerability to chronic disease.
While medical experts and policymakers often talk about rising rates of nutrition related chronic disease as a “crisis,” Perry said that the true health crisis in the U.S. is a lack of preventative care.
“We know that good nutrition habits act as a buffer,” she said. “And if we start with kids when they’re really young, and they bring it home, and their parents have the knowledge and the ability to make those kinds of choices, it makes a huge difference.”
Making emergency food healthier
Emergency food assistance has traditionally prioritized food, period. Nutritional value has been secondary to access.
In New Mexico, a family struggling to afford food can seek support from a network of emergency food providers. Five regional food banks provide food to their own partner network – food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, schools, senior centers – where a family might stand in line to pick up a box of provisions. Altogether, the five food banks in New Mexico supply 500 partner organizations.
Food banks aggregate items that can be stored and distributed without expiring. Like fast food, canned goods with a long shelf life are typically preserved with large quantities of salt or sugar. Sometimes grocery stores donate their leftover bakery items to food banks; pantries pack the 600-calorie muffins into boxes.
But in the past decade there have been efforts to change, with partners calling for more produce. Some pantries started gardens. Others offered diabetes boxes that steered clear of carbohydrates.
A few, like the Rio Grande Food Project, have long addressed root causes of hunger. For years the organization has offered clients a slew of services on top of weekly food distribution, like helping people enroll in rental assistance programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“If people are going to spend their gas money to visit us, we’re going to try to figure out what’s making them hungry in the first place,” said Kathi Cunningham, the Rio Grande Food Project’s development director.
“There’s definitely a [national] movement that you can’t just be a food pantry,” she added. “You have to offer all these other services, or else you’re just putting a Band-Aid on a big issue.”
Education is a central component. It’s hard for people to change, said Cunningham, who began the Rio Grande Food Project’s garden as a way to cultivate awareness of healthy choices, encouraging people to slow down and think more about nutritional value, even if they still sometimes opt for chips.
Until 2020, the Rio Grande Food Project distributed groceries to around 3,500 people per month.
Then the pandemic hit, and everyone went into crisis mode.
Starting in March 2020, when the governor ordered all non-essential businesses to close, food pantries across the state reported a dramatic surge in need.
At the same time many of them smashed into a demographic reality: Most of their volunteers are older.
The Community Pantry in Gallup normally distributes food through a range of partner agencies, like churches and senior centers. But when the pandemic hit, all but two shut down, and the pantry had to figure out how to provide food directly to the clients of those organizations.
Other food banks reported similar emergencies. The Food Depot in Santa Fe reported that of the 74 hunger relief organizations it partnered with, the average age of volunteer staff was 81. Suddenly, with all those elderly volunteers sheltering in place, partner organizations had no one to work. The Food Depot rushed to take over distributions.
It was during these first few months of frantic adaptation that a modest working group exploded. Formed in 2019, the Food, Hunger, Water, Agriculture Policy Working Group brought together food and related policy organizations who don’t normally work together. Before the pandemic, around 80 organizations were invited to the monthly meetings convened by New Mexico First. But as food organizations searched for support, the roster expanded dramatically to over 300 groups and individuals – from food banks and pantries, public health clinics, agricultural businesses, mobile food distribution, policy organizations, and state government – meeting weekly rather than monthly.
“It was miraculous how people came together to step in and fill gaps before government response could even start,” said Sharon Berman, a Civic Engagement and Policy Manager at New Mexico First.
For example, for nearly 10 years, MoGro, a mobile grocery nonprofit, had been aggregating produce in a boxed-subscription model: Local farmers sold their produce to MoGro, which then bundled and delivered it to paying customers.
But when the lockdown made reaching their clients difficult, relief organizations contacted MoGro, seeing them as the authority on mobile produce distribution.
In one case, Vegan Outreach, a national organization, contacted MoGro to help with large-scale distribution in tribal communities.
“We started aggregating and packing the food, and traveling, because we had the capacity,” said Shelby Danilowicz, MoGro’s Project Co-Director.
Since the pandemic, MoGro’s mission has shifted. “We’re at this point where it feels like we’re really growing, and we have an idea of where we want to be putting our energy, mostly into these partnership programs and helping to shift this larger idea of food as medicine,” Danilowicz said.
Some of the most powerful partnerships emerged between organizations that have traditionally remained siloed: hunger relief charities, health care clinics, and agriculture business.
In May 2021, Presbyterian Healthcare Services moved to universal social needs screening, with the goal of creating stronger connections between healthcare and social services in the community. When a patient comes to an appointment, they answer questions about food, housing, financial instability, and transportation.
The patient may then become eligible for a “produce prescription,” which means they’ll receive a weekly supply of fruits and vegetables, free of charge, for several months. Presbyterian received a grant during the pandemic to develop the program, and partnered with MoGro, which delivers fruits and vegetables from local farmers to eligible patients at its locations in Santa Fe and Española.
Carrie Thielen, a dietician and manager of Regional Community Health for Presbyterian, explained that one of the health system’s priorities is addressing childhood hunger.
“When kids are engaged in healthy eating, they often bring that back to their parents,” she said.
And they are not the only health provider partnering with local growers.
In 2021, the New Mexico Farmers Marketing Association approached First Choice Community Health Care about a new program called Fresh Rx that would provide bags of fresh produce to First Choice clinics for patients to collect.
The primary goal of FreshRx is to support local agriculture, explained Kirsten Hansen, FreshRx’s program coordinator.
“… I do see the silver lining [of COVID],” Hansen said. During the pandemic, more money was made available to the USDA; at the same time, with outdoor settings offering the only safe space for gathering and shopping, farmers markets saw a boom in business. As the program flourished, they were able to reach out to more partners like First Choice.
“We started thinking, we need to do more as a community healthcare center than just seeing patients and writing prescriptions for chronic diseases,” said Tiffany Stevens, the outreach coordinator for First Choice.
First Choice also receives produce bags from Agri-Cultura Network, a nonprofit that supports local farmers.
“Our long-term vision here is for New Mexico to become a sustainable food state,” said Helga Garza, the executive director of Agri-Cultura Network. In this vision, the market for local farmers expands while providing food to populations that otherwise might not have access to organic produce.
This year, building on the gains made during the pandemic, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham launched the Food, Farm, and Hunger Initiative — recently renamed the Food Initiative —and secured $24.7 million from the Legislature to create and fund policy that tackles hunger across the state.
“The Food Initiative is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s commitment to build a robust food system that measurably reduces hunger and improves equitable access to nutritious, culturally meaningful foods,” said Chavez, “while simultaneously supporting farmers, ranchers, and food businesses to produce more fresh food for food-insecure New Mexicans.”
On August 25, the Rio Grande Food Project held a small party in their garden to launch a capital campaign. Ari Herring, the director, explained that the food hub was on the edge of a possible expansion. The team had expanded their board during COVID, and now they wanted to create a “client-choice model food pantry” — which resembles a grocery store, with food placed in aisles, labeled with nutritional facts and navigable by shopping cart — in place of the current model of distributing pre-assembled bags.
“When they’re shopping, it raises the dignity of the whole experience,” said Cunningham.
State-wide, this is a next step that food and agriculture programs are envisioning. For example, FreshRx asks clients to choose whether they want to redeem a pre-packaged box of produce, or pick out their own produce at a farmers market. The goal is that more opportunities to make nutrition-related decisions will help patients develop sustainable healthy eating habits that align with their personal taste.
Hansen, the FreshRx program coordinator, said that this is a choice she wants everyone to have.
When Delfine receives a bag from the Rio Grande Food Project, he tries his best not to waste the carb-heavy foods that he can’t eat; he donates the dried spaghetti and canned mashed potatoes to his neighbors, keeping diabetic-friendly foods for himself. But if he could pick what was in his bag, he said, he would select grapes, bananas, eggs, meat — things that are fresh and “real.”
“I don’t do the cooking part. When I get the stuff, I eat it whole,” he said, describing what has become his ideal snack: a tomato, split in half, with a sprinkle of salt.