Though YouthWorks founder and executive director Melynn Schuyler says the youth-based nonprofit has been working inside El Rancho de las Golondrinas' massive industrial kitchen for over a year, the new world order required the organization to rethink how it does things. In this case, it's to focus on the food insecure during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly Santa Fe youth.
As it stands, YouthWorks already has a contract with the Children Youth & Families Department to deliver roughly 1,200 meals a day to after-school programs, but as schools closed, effectively cutting off food from vulnerable kids, Schuyler and crew leapt into action. The early days were tricky, however, as YouthWorks' funding is specific to "congregate" meals, Schuyler says.
"We had to beg," she says. "There are some weird regulations, and it took us until the 26th of March to get a waiver. [We were] calling the governor's office, the food czar, talking to CYFD and asking the city to help."
In the end, YouthWorks won out and has since been allowed to offer take-home dinner meals alongside Santa Fe Public Schools at various elementary school pickup locations across the city seven days a week.
"The cool thing is that we get to make really creative, yummy meals," Schuyler explains. "This isn't just a sandwich."
The kitchen show is run by Jackie Gibbs, a local chef who came up through the YouthWorks programs, including the culinary curriculum, herself.
"We're working to cook about 700 meals a day, and we've actually upped our numbers for the adults who moved into the Midtown campus," Gibbs says, referring to homeless Santa Feans who have been sheltered in the dorms on the former Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus. "We're about 20 people rotating in and out; about five who are over the age of 24, the rest are 17 to 23."
Both Schuyler and Gibbs say there are never more than five people in the kitchen at a time, and Gibbs adds that the work is particularly rewarding since she and the other young kitchen staff understand what it's like to not know from where their next meal is coming.
"They're used to being in these situations," she tells SFR. "We know how to make do with what we have, and we take pride in making these meals for people in need—and I'm not just some adult telling them what to do, I also went through this program."
For the most part, the meals include casserole-type dishes, Gibbs says; enchiladas, green chile chicken stew, hot dogs—whatever makes sense.
"It's pretty price-productive," she says. "Making casseroles is also easier than what some of the other local programs are doing, and Golondrinas has been a great help to us."
"YouthWorks is our food provider during the season, and we have this huge commercial kitchen," says El Rancho de las Golondrinas' Museum Director Daniel Goodman. "As soon as the superintendent announced the school closure, Jackie called and we said 'How can we help out with this?' For a lot of these kids, this is the only meal they get throughout the day."
Goodman also says he's hoping Golondrinas might itself become a pickup location. Its Southside locale along with that part of town's food desert make it ideal. However, he says, he and YouthWorks are still working toward that. The living history museum also boasts farming acreage, which could potentially mean growing ingredients for the YouthWorks meals.
"We'd like to develop more of that stuff," Goodman notes. "There's opportunity for us to be more proactive with farm-to-table programs and providing healthier food to people—maybe with produce that's been grown right on the property."
Golondrinas has already provided thousands of pounds of produce to The Food Depot annually, and donations might expand if the museum doesn't have its season this year. Golondrinas has long been host to site rentals, wine festivals, renaissance faires, weddings and such—it's why it has the kitchen in the first place—but, Goodman points out, "even after everything blows over, there's still going to be some fallout, so we need to plan now."
It's just the Golondrinas way, he says.
"You're never too big to do the small things," he says. "Everybody out here is responsible for everything. In some ways, it's just us trying to do our part, but we're also uniquely positioned—if it's a benefit to the community in even a small way, we're honored to do that."
Donations can be made to YouthWorks here.