The numbers are staggering: 550,000 pounds of food and related products collected every month to provide 450,000 meals for people in need. That's the work of The Food Depot (1222 Siler Road, 471-1633, thefooddepot.org), which recently marked 25 years of fighting hunger in nine Northern New Mexico counties.
Executive Director Sherry Hooper has been with the organization for more than 17 years. In 2008, she notes, "when the economy tanked," The Food Depot saw an approximate 30% increase in the number of people seeking help. Those numbers haven't changed in the decade since. So, while the effort to meet the daily immediate need for families continues, The Food Depot also has begun working, she says, "on long-term solutions to hunger" through advocacy.
"We're doing a better job educating our local, state and federal elected officials about hunger in our service area and the work currently being done to end it," Hooper says.
When asked what people might not realize about hunger in Northern New Mexico, Hooper cites two main points. The first, she says, "is that more than 50 percent of the people who are helped are some of the most vulnerable in our communities, and they are children and seniors." The second point is that the remaining people in need are working families. Those families often are two-parent households living on minimum wage. Losing a day of work to stay home with a sick child or even paying for an unexpected car repair can often put such families "over the edge" in terms of their monthly income, "and their food budget tends to be the most flexible piece of their budget."
The Food Depot has continued to add programs to take away any barriers to people having enough to eat by looking at the issue of hunger holistically. For example, its Diaper Depot program addresses the challenge many working families face in providing diapers for their children.
"When a parent wishes to go back to school or back to work but has a small child they have to put in daycare, they have to be able to provide disposable diapers or they can't put them in daycare," Hooper notes.
The Food 4 Pets program helps feed low-income pet owners' animals. "We were finding that so many of the people would take the human food we gave them and provide that food to their pets," she says. "This was affecting a lot of seniors, [many of whom] are living alone and that pet, that dog or cat, may be their only companion."
Other programs include behind-the-scenes disaster relief during emergencies such as forest fires, a mobile food pantry serving more than 20 rural stops in Northern New Mexico, and a lunchtime summer program to ensure children don't go hungry when the school year is over.
The number one priority, of course, is "getting food to people who need it," Hooper says. The Food Depot accomplishes this task by working with nonprofits that have food programs—approximately 70 in Santa Fe alone.
"What that means is those nonprofits don't need to take resources away from their priorities to gather food," Hooper says. "They only need to come to us."
That food comes from a variety of sources, but no matter where it comes from, The Food Depot ensures none goes to waste.
"So much of the food we collect here locally would otherwise go to waste and go to landfills," Hooper says of the food collected from grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, as well as small manufacturers and distributors. When working with grocery stores, for instance, food that would be pulled from the shelves due to expiration dates is frequently still "perfectly good." The Food Depot takes it and makes it available to its partner agencies. And when receiving food that isn't suitable for human consumption, "we work with local composters and pig farmers to make sure that food is used in some way," she says. "We don't put food into our dumpsters; we make sure that it's used."
The Food Depot welcomes volunteers and donations of all kinds—consider hosting a food drive personally or through your organization to help fill in the gaps and particularly to help during non-holiday months of the year.