SUNLAND PARK – Food insecurity is soaring in Sunland Park, Doña Ana County’s southernmost community of about 17,400 people along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the need for food assistance is far outpacing the resources of the main nonprofit working in the city to alleviate hunger. Several factors are contributing to demand for food aid across Southern New Mexico, including in Sunland Park.
The bumper demand means that families and individuals who need help in this vibrant, mostly Hispanic and Latino border community are receiving a basket of groceries about once every six months – due to a rotation schedule the nonprofit the Southern New Mexico Project was forced to implement to distribute its limited food allotment as fairly as possible.
Advocates say this schedule, while necessary given the constraints, doesn’t do much to alleviate hunger for people in need of immediate help. And one basket of food – though it can weigh up to 75 pounds – doesn’t last a family months until its next allotment.
In all, the Southern New Mexico Project is serving 1,182 clients who need food, said Rafael Ramos-Lacen, president and founder of the group. But the nonprofit receives just 200 baskets of food per month from the main supplier serving Southern New Mexico – the Albuquerque-based Roadrunner Food Bank. He said despite volunteers’ best attempts, trying to help everyone in need feels like an impossible situation because there’s not enough to go around.
“How you can do do it?” he said incredulously. “We serve 200 families per month, so we rotate the families. The people who receive this month are not going to receive next month.”
The strong demand for food assistance strongly ties into high poverty in the city, advocates said. Nearly one in three households live in poverty in Sunland Park, according to federal numbers. And the rate is believed to be higher in some of the city’s neighborhoods. The Southern New Mexico Project recently priced a sample basket of groceries it distributes, finding it would cost nearly $200 at Walmart.
Factors combine to boost demand
But there are other reasons, too. Vivian Fuller works in Sunland Park as a community coordinator with an advocacy group called the Empowerment Congress. She helps out at Ramos-Lacen’s food distribution events, and regularly meets people in the course of her work who need help with food. Part of the challenge is a lack of grocery stores in the city. Plus, food prices have risen sharply.
“They go into El Paso, so they need money for gas, and they need money for groceries,” she said.
While there are two other, smaller food banks that operate in Sunland Park, Fuller said, one limits its assistance to seniors, and another restricts its help to families whose kids attend a certain school. She said she tries to refer people to other communities, but those towns are facing their own challenges with hunger.
“Myself – I probably have about two or three people a week asking me where the pantries are located,” she said.
Other factors contributing to the need in Sunland Park are also affecting the broader region of Southern New Mexico. Both Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, once known as food stamps, and food pantry programs work hand-in-hand to alleviate hunger throughout the state. But SNAP benefits early this year dropped sharply from temporarily elevated levels in place during the pandemic. And the state government has been slow to process residents’ applications for SNAP benefits enrollment and reauthorization, clients and advocates have said. Plus, some people may earn more than the financial thresholds to qualify for SNAP, but still face hunger.
Across Doña Ana County, 14 percent of residents are food insecure, according to the most recent data (2021) from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap index. That’s higher than the nationwide rate of about 10 percent. (The food insecurity indicator is a separate metric from the poverty rate.) Food banks don’t yet have data to quantify food insecurity for the current year.
For Sunland Park residents to secure a food basket, they have to both sign up with the Southern New Mexico Project and confirm they’ll attend their assigned distribution event, per the organization’s rules. That means people who show up without having an appointment don’t receive food. Ramos-Lacen said it’s difficult to turn people away, but if the organization distributed food to people who didn’t have an appointment, it would mean residents with appointments wouldn’t get their basket.
“When people come to us looking for food, they are really, really in a tight spot,” he said. “But we cannot serve them now.”
Seeking an increase
Roadrunner Food Bank, which delivers food to Sunland Park for Southern New Mexico Project’s once-a-month distribution event, told Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative it’s looking into the problem. Sonya Warwick, director of communications for the food bank, said the regional coordinator is “working with them now to see how we can increase poundage going to that location and the amount of food going to that site.”
Roadrunner Food Bank has already upped the amount, compared to a year ago, according to numbers from Warwick. In July and August of 2022, the organization shipped about 19,700 pounds to the Southern New Mexico Project. In the same timeframe this year, some 22,700 pounds were sent, about a 15 percent increase. The larger amount potentially could serve up to 260 families, “depending on how the site packs the boxes with how much product they include in each box,” she said.
Warwick said Roadrunner Food Bank is also seeking more information about the Southern New Mexico Project’s caseload and what mix of families and individuals it includes.
Rev. Titus Scholl, a Lutheran minister in Albuquerque, founded Roadrunner Food Bank in the late 1970s after attending a conference about a growing national trend of food banking, in which organizations formed to save edible-but-unwanted food from grocery stores, farmers and other suppliers to distribute to those experiencing hunger, according to the organization’s website. It became the 40th member of the national food bank network known as Feeding America. Roadrunner Food Bank expanded its service area over the years, eventually adding six counties in south-central and southwest New Mexico – including Doña Ana County – in 2011.
The food bank works by delivering bulk food to local partners – smaller nonprofits, agencies and volunteers, like the Southern New Mexico Project, who then distribute the food to families and individuals in need. Most times, the partner organizations are tasked with sorting the bulk deliveries – for instance, boxes of watermelons and pallets of tomato sauce – into home-ready bundles that contain a mix of food groups. That sorting process, as well as the interactions with the public, requires dedicated manpower, often from organizations that rely mostly on volunteers.
A retired engineer, Ramos-Lacen founded the Southern New Mexico Project in 2010 to serve residents in Sunland Park. The nonprofit offers different programs connecting residents to workforce training, remedial education and arts and crafts opportunities. But it soon branched out into hosting food distribution events because the huge need became apparent.
“Sunland Park is a vulnerable place for food insecurity,” he said. “You won't believe it.”
Relief program tapered off
The Southern New Mexico Project doesn’t have a building for food storage and distribution. Rather, Roadrunner Food Bank sends a truck loaded with food the second week of each month to the parking lot of city hall. Ramos-Lacen, his wife, and 12 to 14 volunteers then work to sort the food, apportion it, and hand it out to residents who attend.
Just before the pandemic struck New Mexico in March 2020, the Southern New Mexico Project was distributing about 100 baskets of food per month, according to Ramos-Lacen. After the pandemic hit, it boosted that to 800 baskets, as the need for assistance skyrocketed when people lost jobs. The number grew to about 1,100 households served each month by the end of 2020 and reached 4,000 by the end of 2021, as pandemic relief programs ramped up the supply of food. As those relief measures were curtailed, the number of baskets provided per month dropped back down to 200 by the end of 2022.
A significant federal effort – the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program – substantially boosted the amount of food Roadrunner Food Bank was able to send to counties throughout Southern New Mexico in 2020, 2021 and, to some degree, in 2022, Warwick said. But, like other pandemic relief programs, it has tapered off.
“That program is no longer operating in that way,” she said.
A need for infrastructure
Lorenzo Alba Jr., is the executive director for Casa de Peregrinos emergency food pantry in Las Cruces, which recently moved into a newly renovated, expanded office space and food distribution center on West Amador Avenue. He said he’s well aware of the extreme need that exists in Sunland Park. Casa de Peregrinos used to support a pantry that operated out of a church in Sunland Park until it ran into problems with the site, so it currently isn’t delivering food in that city. Still, he said, the need is likely even greater than the nearly 1,200 clients on the Southern New Mexico Project’s caseload.
“The poverty levels have lingered between 39 and 42 percent for a long time. That hasn’t changed,” he said. “Anapra and Santa Teresa and Sunland Park are some of the poorest communities.”
A dedicated building with food storage and distribution capacity is a missing link in the efforts to serve residents in southern Doña Ana County, Alba Jr. said. Southern New Mexico Project now relies on a mobile food-pantry model, which requires timing and coordinating clients to show up the same day and time as Roadrunner Food Bank’s delivery truck. But a facility would allow more flexibility, both for organizers and clients of the pantry, especially when storing food and managing deliveries across a state – and county – as large as New Mexico and Doña Ana. He said such a hub would better serve people in need of food.
“The only way to really address the hunger gap is with infrastructure,” he said.
Already, Alba Jr. said, the Legislature in the 2022 session allocated $1.4 million toward a food pantry building in Sunland Park that would be adjacent to the Doña Ana Community College campus. But the city will need about $4.5 million in total to make it a reality. Alba Jr. said the city would own the building, but Casa de Peregrinos would operate it, likely subcontracting with the Southern New Mexico Project. He’s requested funding from federal lawmakers and is hoping for further allocations from state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session that starts in January. He’s hoping funding for the center will be part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s capital outlay projects.
“If the state can invest in Santa Teresa (and its border industrial zone), it can invest in Sunland Park,” he said. “If the state can invest in Santa Teresa, it can invest in Las Cruces. It can invest in Hatch. We make the mistake of not saying it out loud enough what the need is.”
Casa de Peregrinos is a separate organization from the Southern New Mexico Project, but they work collaboratively. Alba Jr. said he’s spoken recently with Ramos-Lacen about the proposed construction project, and a series of community input meetings will happen soon.
More food on the way?
While Roadrunner Food Bank will be seeking to increase the amount of food headed to the Southern New Mexico Project, Warwick said a key factor will be how many more pounds the smaller organization can process and distribute. When the COVID relief food was available, it was pre-sorted and packed, reducing the workload for local pantries, which is not the case for food distributed now.
“We’ll also inquire if the site is interested in doing multiple distributions a month and seeing what that possibility could look like,” Warwick said.
Ramos-Lacen said the promise for more food is too good of an offer to turn away. He said he’d likely need to do more fundraising to help offer a financial stipend to people who are otherwise volunteers with his group. He wants to find a way to serve more residents.
“Now, they have the possibility of increasing, that's good news for me,” he said.
For help finding food assistance, visit: https://www.rrfb.org/find-help/find-food/
Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens. For more info visit, SouthNMnews.org or SurNMnoticias.org. As a disclosure, Empowerment Congress mentioned in this article is a participant in SNMJC.