Megan Taros

(New Mexico Source) When the federal government ended the pandemic expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program this month, Gladys Recinos went from being able to buy food for her family for the entire month to barely making it to 17 days. More realistically, she can cover about 15 days worth of food with her food aid

It’s why she says school meals are “indispensable” to her and her family.

“Sometimes I send my daughter to school early just so she can eat breakfast,” Recinos said.

That’s a reality for many families in Santa Fe’s Southside, a low-income immigrant community that advocates say has long been neglected and misunderstood by local and state officials.

In the two schools closest to the Southside – Ramirez Thomas Elementary and Capital High School – 100% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed SB 4 at the start of the week that will provide relief to families who rely on their children being fed at school to help stretch their food budgets.

Starting next year, healthy school meals will make their way to all K-12 public school students in New Mexico.

But the tapestry of food insecurity in the Southside is more complicated.

In 2012, the city of Santa Fe approved the Healthy Communities Overlay District with the intent of bringing healthier foods, grocery stores, gyms and health care through incentives like fee waivers.

That never happened.

“As soon as they declared Airport Road a food desert, they automatically assumed there was nothing there to invest in,” said Miguel Acosta, co-director of Earth Care, a nonprofit that primarily focuses on the environment.

Acosta said the situation of getting food and infrastructure to the Southside is much more dire – it’s food apartheid, a deliberate lack of policy and investment. The fruitlessness of the city’s efforts over the years to help the community also signals a profound misunderstanding of its needs, Acosta said.

Acosta said the community wants more investments in small businesses and culturally-relevant places to get food like an outdoor market, a style of vending that is common in Latin America where patrons can get fresh produce as well as gather with their neighbors. While the city has tried outreach events, Acosta said the communication with the community, especially the immigrant community, is lacking.

There is seldom promotional material in Spanish and little engagement with neighbors, he said.

“Here in Santa Fe, part of the challenge is public institutions,” Acosta said. “They don’t know their populations other than specific white, middle class populations. They have no idea what’s going on with its Latino, Spanish-speaking communities.”

The pandemic kicked off a chain reaction of families needing more help as some lost their jobs or were unable to work. The applications for expanded benefits were dense and some didn’t have internet at home to be able to fill them out.

Edgar Talavera, a member of Earth Care’s Family Leadership Council that advocates for policies to help low-income families in Santa Fe, said he found himself using his own car to deliver food and bringing people to his home so they could use the internet.

“During COVID, it was very, very difficult for families,” Talavera said. “They were without work, we were without work. There weren’t always resources for them when they lost their jobs.”

Earth Care distributed about $1 million in aid in the first two and half years of the pandemic.

But as federal, local and state governments end emergency aid and roll back pandemic programs, the reality of the pandemic hasn’t changed for New Mexicans.

Prices for gasoline, food, bills and rent have all gone up. Even with benefits, it’s difficult to get through the month. Recinos, a single mom, said she uses food stamps, relies on school meals and food distribution from the Food Depot on Siler Road, but still has a difficult time making ends meet.

Talavera said the situation is especially difficult for undocumented immigrants, who don’t always feel safe asking for help.

“Working with an organization is easier for families, especially those without papers or social security,” Talavera said. “How are they going to ask the government for help? It’s very, very difficult.”

He said government entities should find ways to bring in more money and food for organizations working with those in need. But a “perfect storm” is on the horizon.

Food banks across New Mexico are still experiencing a great need for food while the federal government cuts programs and donations are decreasing. Cases of COVID-19 are cutting the number of staff and volunteers every week, said Sherry Hooper, executive director of the Food Depot.

“When food costs are so high, that dollar isn’t stretching anymore,” Hooper said. “We are feeling the challenge and it’s impeding our ability to help because we’re also paying such high prices.”

A study by the Food Depot presented to Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber last year found that 17% of children under 18 in Santa Fe are food insecure. It also pointed to a lack of political will to permanently solve childhood hunger in the U.S., despite the existence of several nutrition assistance programs.

“It is not the goal of any of these separate nutrition assistance programs – not even the biggest and most expensive, SNAP – to eliminate hunger,” the report reads. “Their disparate eligibility criteria leave numerous populations unprotected.”

The report, along with advocates who spoke to Source New Mexico, said low wages were one of the primary drivers of hunger. The report recommends financial measures such as stipends or a mandatory minimum living wage to address the roots of food insecurity.

For now, eliminating the burden of school meals costs is a fragment of what needs to be done.

“Hungry children still have hungry parents,” Hooper said. “Low-income families have a fixed budget and there’s some things that just need to be paid. What’s left over is their budget for food.”