Mariam Bartleson and her coworkers hand several bags of meals to a family waiting in a car at Chaparral Elementary School. Everyone waves and smiles, all wearing masks. They clearly know each other.

Since COVID-19 arrived and shut down the schools, Bartleson and her team have been working across the school district as part of the free meal program that has now carried over into the summer—and increased.

Starting mid-June, she and her coworkers began making 140 meals three days a week—up from 90 the previous weeks—in an attempt to plug the significant increase in food insecurity across Santa Fe and New Mexico.

Before the pandemic, hunger in the state was already a major issue: One of every six people and one of every four children deal with food insecurity. In 2014, Feeding America and the New Mexico Association of Food Banks found that of those seeking emergency food assistance, 30% are children, 21% are seniors and 16% are raising their grandchildren.

The changes in the economy and daily life devastated paychecks and closed businesses, with more than 170,000 New Mexicans applying for unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving many without a way to buy food. According to Feeding America, job loss, sickness and panic-buying of food and essentials further hurt already vulnerable populations.

Feeding America now projects a 6% increase in food insecurity from 2018 to 2020 in Santa Fe County alone as a result of COVID-19, from 10.7% to 16.9% of residents. The organization expects every New Mexico county to experience increases in food insecurity.

Jill Dixon, The Food Depot's director of development, tells SFR while there is no official data on the increase in food insecurity in New Mexico yet, the organization will put together a quarterly report in early July that will reveal how dramatically the need has increased. Anecdotal reports suggest a 30% increase in demand for hunger relief services.

But the people and organizations of Northern New Mexico have stepped up to fill the food gaps in a region already grappling with food deserts and swamps amid large swaths of low-income areas and Native American reservations.

When the stay-at-home orders hit, public schools, nonprofits and colleges increased their food distribution to previously unimagined levels to help stave off an even deeper hunger crisis.

Some of these essential food employees and volunteers have been doing this work for years; others just since the beginning of the pandemic. All have seen major changes in their lives and work. Some switched from running a business to volunteering full time. Others grappled with loss of work and isolation. Still others saw their workloads multiply beyond what they thought possible. All have been necessary in the struggle to help others during life with COVID-19.

"Volunteers are absolutely essential in hunger relief efforts related to the COVID-19 public health crisis," Dixon writes to SFR. "The monumental increase in food distribution that took place in the past three months simply would not have been possible without the thousands of hours of effort put in by hundreds of volunteers."

Mariam Bartleson, left, and her coworkers loaded up prepared meals onto a school bus at Chaparral Elementary School in Santa Fe on June 26. The team then drove to the village of Glorieta to deliver the meals to families who need them.
Mariam Bartleson, left, and her coworkers loaded up prepared meals onto a school bus at Chaparral Elementary School in Santa Fe on June 26. The team then drove to the village of Glorieta to deliver the meals to families who need them. | Mark Woodward

Mariam Bartleson – Santa Fe Public Schools

Mariam Bartleson has been working for Santa Fe Public Schools for the last decade, managing kitchen staff and cooking. Normally she works at Aspen Community School and Milagro Middle School during the academic year, planning and cooking meals with fresh vegetables, fruits and other products from local farms. She loved it, especially making fresh Frito pies for the students with beef and cheese from New Mexico ranchers.

In the summers, Bartleson would manage the kitchens at Nina Otero Community School during SFPS' various summer programs.

But this year is "different" and "really scary," Bartleson tells SFR from behind her mask, standing in the sun outside Chaparral Elementary School and handing out bags of food to families as they pull up every few minutes.

Instead of running the kitchens for a long summer of cooking for about 280 kids, she is putting together and distributing much simpler meals for the school district's Summer Food Service Program that started June 8 and provides free breakfast and lunch three times a week.

The program began in response to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's order to provide schools with extra food in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Anyone 18 and under can get a free meal, even if they don't go to any schools or programs in the Santa Fe district. Parents can pick up the food for their children. While the district offered breakfast and lunch during the early weeks of the program at seven schools, the summer schedule is for five locations.

Cooking up Frito pies has not been an option since COVID-19. Now, she and her co-workers assemble packaged food parents can easily serve at home: hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken tenders, cheese sticks. Bartleson says she tries to switch up which products they hand out so it's not the same food every day.

Over the last 10 years, Bartleson has gotten to know the children she feeds at the area public schools. She looked forward to the summers continuing to cook for and spend time with them.

"The hardest part is us having to be all covered up and then not being able to see the kids either," Bartleson says. "We see the kids in the car and it's nice because we get to say hi and talk to them and they're just always happy to get their bag of food."

She worries about her reduced summer work hours since there aren't any kids to take care of. Normally she works eight hours a day, but COVID has reduced her work hours to just four or five hours three days a week—for now.

And there's the fear of catching the virus.

"We worry about [getting sick] all the time," Bartleson says. "We're not allowed to work if we have fever. If we have aches, if we have a cough, then we let our boss know and then she won't schedule us. But we try to protect ourselves the best we can."

Rick Sarwal still has a full time job at LANL, but now he’s also a regular worker at The Food Depot.
Rick Sarwal still has a full time job at LANL, but now he’s also a regular worker at The Food Depot. | Courtesy the Food Depot

Rick Sarwal – The Food Depot

Working from home at the start of the pandemic didn't faze Rick Sarwal, who is employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a technical project manager. As soon as the remote-office order came down, he jumped into volunteering at The Food Depot with his newfound flexible schedule. He plans to continue volunteering indefinitely.

"The lab does a really good job in letting us know about volunteer opportunities and I've been dying to help," Sarwal tells SFR. "I told my manager I plan on continuing this and he was fully on board with that."

Sarwal has been inspired to volunteer his entire life because of his mother, who he says always volunteered and made food for those who needed it, usually through her church.

"I'm not a church type person; however, I do have that humane nature and spirit and [my] compassion towards hunger is huge, especially when I went back to take my dad's remains to India," Sarwal says. "Witnessing all those people in hunger and in New Mexico…I mean, you can't get away from it here because we are a poor state."

Sarwal was further motivated to both donate money and volunteer after the lab laid off some trade workers—such as janitors, when cleaning staff became less necessary due to many employees working from home—and he saw those employees struggling to buy food and other essentials after losing their jobs.

Typically, The Food Depot provides 528,000 pounds of food each month to various nonprofit partners and directly to people as well. But COVID-19 changed everything, and the organization had to scale up its operations in a major way.

Between March 9 and June 15, The Food Depot distributed more than 3 million pounds of food—enough to provide more than 2.5 million meals, and the number of people seeking assistance at a drive-through pantry increased from a baseline of 1,200 people in February to a peak of 4,400 people at the end of April, according to Dixon.

Volunteers were desperately needed as well.

"A significant portion of our regular network of volunteers prior to the pandemic had to take a break from volunteering due to health concerns," Dixon writes SFR in an email. "However, since The Food Depot's COVID-19 response began, over 450 new individuals came forward to join the volunteer team. To meet the increased demand for food while maintaining social distancing practices, The Food Depot started volunteer projects at three off-site locations in addition to the warehouse."

Handing out that many bags of food can take hours as lines curve for miles from the distribution sites. Part of Sarwal's job includes ensuring the process moves as quickly as possible and that he and the other volunteers remain compassionate when people grow frustrated. He says the drive-through pickups early in the pandemic were particularly challenging because of the large volume of people needing help, but now the team has the system down to a science.

In order to move the food distribution along, Sarwal arrives an hour early to each shift, and each volunteer has a specific job to complete.

"I did have one or two volunteers that were upset when a person made a comment that they waited too long to get their food," Sarwal says. "The most rewarding part is you see the need in people's eyes and, when you're loading their cars, you can visually see the hurt, the pain that they have; the fact that you give them food, it does bring some comfort to them and you can see the relief in their eyes when you do put the box or whatever we're giving out to them."

Courtesy David Sellers

David Sellers – Street Food Institute

David Sellers helped launch the Street Food Institute six years ago. A nonprofit, it runs an Entrepreneurial Food Management Training Course, as well as multiple food trucks, two cafés and a catering business. And as a social enterprise nonprofit, all the money generated by the food trucks, cafés and catering funds the program, which helps future or current business owners run successful businesses.

The institute holds its classes at Central New Mexico Community College for both students and community members. Program participants learn how to work in a commercial kitchen, including: basic kitchen operations; knife safety and equipment safety; basic safe food handling; as well as knowledge of business permitting requirements, menu development and cost analysis.

But when COVID-19 arrived, everything came to a "screeching, screeching halt," Sellers says. The food trucks and cafés have only recently made a comeback and classes are online now, but an important portion of the organization's income, catering, nearly disappeared.

To fill the time and continue working in food, Sellers and Executive Director Tina Garcia-Shams began distributing food at hospitals in Albuquerque.

Then they started working with Santa Fe Community College and World Central Kitchen to distribute thousands of meals to people in Northern New Mexico. Sellers has provided hot food in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as to other parts of rural Santa Fe County. Between just Madrid and Edgewood, Sellers and Garcia-Shames have plated 400 to 500 meals daily.

"They'll show up and they take six meals and they literally eat that the whole week," Sellers says. "At the Edgewood spot, we have three or four homeless people who show up and they'll get like eight meals. Literally, it's all they eat until the next time and then what we do too is if we have any stuff left over, we go to…St. Martin's Shelter in Albuquerque, and we take the extra stuff there."

The hardest aspect of the pandemic for Sellers was having to let go of the organization's 50 employees before receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government.

"It took them almost two months to get paid, you know, it took a long time so they were really tight and again, you know, they're low wage restaurant workers, essentially," Sellers tells SFR. "They all live paycheck to paycheck so they were hurting for sure."

Faculty from the SFCC culinary arts department prepare ready-to-eat meals.
Faculty from the SFCC culinary arts department prepare ready-to-eat meals.

Jerry Dakan – Santa Fe Community College

Jerry Dakan, SFCC's lead culinary arts department faculty member, fills the last of hundreds of disposable boxes of hot meals—rows of enchiladas ready for distribution for a quick bite or reheating at home.

Before the pandemic, Dakan taught culinary and sanitation classes. When COVID-19 hit, he and the other faculty and students jumped into action, cooking and boxing meals as the school was closing down.

By late April, Dakan had helped kick off a collaboration between SFCC, World Central Kitchen, YouthWorks, the Santa Fe Public School district and local chefs to get as many meals out as possible to people suffering from hunger. The project was supported by the SFCC Foundation.

Alongside SFCC, local nonprofit YouthWorks distributed many of the meals, including to the pueblos. Street Food Institute, the culinary entrepreneurship nonprofit, helped distribute them in rural areas such as Madrid, Edgewood and Nambé. World Central Kitchen, a non-governmental organization that provides meals after natural disasters, also helped with organization.

The goal: to distribute between 2,000 and 3,000 to-go meals per day for people in Northern New Mexico with many of the meals using vegetables grown in SFCC's Controlled Environment Agriculture's greenhouse.

"We all started seeing that we need to lean on each other and what was the most amazing thing was putting all of these volunteers together and pushing out as many meals as we did because I'll be real honest, when they told me… I had my doubts," Dakan says. "But once you see all the people come together for that meal and then you see the recipients, it's, I mean, that power is now in our hands."

By the time the program ended on June 26, organizers had the complex process down pat and had cooked and delivered more than 50,000 meals for people across Northern New Mexico in places that normally might not have mobile food distribution, such as trailer parks, reservations and more rural areas like Edgewood and Madrid.

As for Dakan, he says he's exhausted—but now knows he wants to do humanitarian work for the rest of his life. He graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Scottsdale when its location was still open and then worked as executive banquet chef with a crew of 150 people at the Arizona Grand Resort in Phoenix before eventually teaching at SFCC starting in 2011. Since then, he has helped open local restaurants and worked as a chef as a side gig, including Sassella in Santa Fe. He has "always come back" to Southwestern cuisine.

"I'm trying to start my own nonprofit. But that takes some time," Dakan says. "I just can't see myself plating up a $42 meal anymore. I'd rather take all of that $42 and make 21 meals for just random strangers who need it…You got to get [food] to the right people. So that's what we're trying to do."

Dakan hopes the meals he and his team cooked were empowering for people. He sees food as more than just something to eat. It becomes a part of the community.

"Food is power and I've seen the misuse of that power," Dakan says. "Just to have the ability to have a meal a day empowers somebody. So now we are liberating that one individual with just a meal, and that's powerful and so, in a sense, I've seen a power shift."

Another unintended consequence of the pandemic: Students are really taking hand-washing seriously.

"I'm a safety and sanitation expert," Dakan tells SFR. "I mean, I have been teaching this the last nine years. I finally got everybody's attention to wash their fucking hands. If we did anything, it's hand-washing."

Feeding Santa Fe

The Food Depot

For July, The Food Depot will provide the following drive-through food distributions in the Santa Fe area:
July 2, July 16 and July 30, 6 to 9 am
The Food Depot parking lot, 1222 A Siler Road
July 11 and July 25, 9 to 11 am
Santa Fe Place (enter from Zafarano Road)

Cerrillos Mobile Food Pantry

Dirt area near railroad tracks across from the Cerrillos Hills State Park
11:30 am to 1 pm
First and third Thursday of the month

Edgewood Mobile Food Pantry

Valley View Christian Church
170 St Rd 344, NM-344 in Edgewood
4 to 6 pm
Fourth Thursday of the month
Roadrunner Food Bank agency will ask for a photo ID.

Santa Fe Public Schools

Summer Food Service Program
10:30 am through 12:30 pm
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through July 31 (all sites closed July 3)

Capital High School
4851 Paseo del Sol

 Chaparral Elementary
2451 Avenida Chaparral

El Camino Real Academy
2500 S Meadows Road

Kearny Elementary
901 Avenida de las Campanas

Sweeney Elementary
501 Airport Road