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New pantry boosts food access in Hatch

Client numbers soar after brick-and-mortar facility opens


Situated in a desert valley next to the Rio Grande, Hatch is a hub for agriculture, especially its world-famous red and green chile. But its role in farming doesn’t insulate the community from hunger.

Indeed, Casa de Peregrinos emergency food pantry, the largest in Doña Ana County, had operated a mobile food pantry in the community for about a decade. This meant that, once a month, workers would show up to the parking lot of a local Catholic church with a truckload of free groceries to be distributed to residents.

But it also meant people would have to be available – not at work, school or another obligation – and able to visit the mobile site at the designated time and day. If not, they weren’t able to get food assistance that month. It’s a problem that’s been on the mind of community leaders and nonprofits for quite a while.

Old building becomes new pantry

Hatch Public Schools Superintendent Michael Chavez, who started his role in 2019, quickly noticed that students and families often had a lot of needs that extended beyond the classroom. He noted the area experiences high poverty.

“We always had families that seemed to be going through crisis,” he said. “We started looking at some of the issues families were dealing with.”

Chavez hired a districtwide social worker to help address the non-classroom support students needed. Food insecurity quickly popped up on the radar.

As the district looked into ways to help, school officials connected with the late Hatch Mayor Slim Whitlock and Casa de Peregrinos Executive Director Lorenzo Alba Jr., who also were concerned about hunger in the community and looking for ways to address it.

Alba was already involved in supplying food to Hatch through the mobile food pantry. But Casa de Peregrinos lacked a building that could serve as a permanent hub for food storage and distribution. Raising money for, planning and building a new facility can take years – a challenge the city of Sunland Park is facing in trying to build a new pantry in southern Doña Ana County.

However, Chavez had an idea: The school system had been trying, unsuccessfully, to sell a cinder-block building across the street from the district headquarters.

“It was an old rec room at one time,” he said. “Why don’t we re-purpose it? So that’s what got the ball rolling.”
Chavez took the idea of turning the building into a food pantry to the school board and got approval. It’s leased to Casa de Peregrinos for free, in exchange for the organization running the pantry. Doña Ana County government, meanwhile, helps pay for the food that’s given out.

Alba said residents of Hatch and surrounding areas showed up to community meetings about the food pantry and filled out surveys. Among things they wanted were access to milk, eggs and produce.

“We had easily 100 to 150 people show up,” he said.

Client numbers soar after pantry opens

The permanent food pantry opened its doors Jan. 12. The roughly 1,200-square-foot facility at 321 N. Main St. is open two days a week: 3 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s open in the late afternoon to accommodate people leaving school and work.

The impact of the new pantry has been immediate, said Leticia Garcia, rural initiatives supervisor for Casa de Peregrinos. The mobile pantry served about 85 clients per month. But in March, the new facility served 430 individuals and families.

The second number likely includes about 100 or so clients from mobile pantries in Garfield and Rincon, distribution sites that have now been consolidated to the Hatch facility. Still, the increase in clients is substantial.

“We’ve already closed the hunger gap quite a bit,” Garcia said.

Food pantry officials expect the numbers to continue to grow. The pantry could be serving about 700 to 800 people per month by the end of the year, roughly double its initial projections, Garcia said.

Countywide, nearly 14 percent of people face food insecurity, according to Feeding America’s Map the Gap hunger index. As far as the food insecurity rate in Hatch more specifically, Alba believes it’s high, although likely not as high as in Sunland Park.

Nearly 28 percent of Hatch residents live in poverty, about 10 percentage points higher than the state as a whole, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

‘This cart is more than $100

On a recent tour, food pantry personnel busily packed baskets with oranges, tortillas, milk, eggs and a variety of other groceries. Residents waited in a short line to get their allotted food.

Margarita Santoyo, a Hatch resident, said the food assistance is very helpful to her family, given the high cost of groceries nowadays. She estimates she doesn’t have to buy food for about a week or so each month because of the pantry.

“I have two children, and they give us fruits, eggs, milk,” she said. “This cart is more than $100.”

As for the new permanent facility, Santoyo said she thinks it’s an improvement over the mobile pantry because food won’t have to sit in the sun like it did in the past, when staff prepared it for distribution in a parking lot.

“When they used to be at the church, it’s in the sun,” she said, adding that the expanded hours are also helpful.

The old building poses some challenges. For instance, residents had to maneuver their baskets across an uneven sidewalk and some dirt to reach their cars.

Infrastructure boosts capacity

Alba said renovations to the building are in the planning stages, thanks to a $375,000 federal allocation by U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez and about $175,000 in state appropriations from state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, Sen. Crystal Brantley and  Rep. Tara Jaramillo. The upgrades will include HVAC, pavement and sidewalks and walk-in refrigerated storage. Alba said it was more important to open the facility as soon as possible, rather than wait for the renovations.

In Sunland Park, city and food pantry officials have argued that a lack of infrastructure is a missing link in the hunger safety-net of southern Doña Ana County. A building with refrigerators and storage space allows food pantry operators to store food safely and manage the day-to-day operations of distributing it. It also presents a dedicated, permanent site that people can easily recognize as a go-to spot for food assistance. Plus, it allows for operating hours to be established throughout the week, as opposed to operating for a few hours once a month from a mobile pantry site. These added hours give residents flexibility to coordinate food pick-up within their own schedules.

Pantry staff say these benefits could be behind the sharp increase in clients at the new Hatch pantry. It’s growing evidence that infrastructure, as boring as it might sound to some, makes a real difference.

“We can now tell people: ‘Look what happens when you have a brick-and-mortar facility,” Alba said.

Internationally, infrastructure is a recognized component of reducing food insecurity and hunger, especially in developing nations and regions. At issue is that food, of course, is perishable, and even non-perishable items have a shelf life. Storage facilities, including cold storage, play a key role in reducing food loss and waste and boosting access, especially in rural areas, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

In Las Cruces, about a 45-minute drive south of Hatch, Casa de Peregrinos celebrated the opening of a new, 13,000-square-foot storage and distribution facility last August. Alba said that facility is already adding to the food storage capacity of the county because it serves as a hub for distributing to smaller towns, like Hatch.

‘This is even better than what I envisioned

In Hatch, a collaborative effort among the village, a key nonprofit and the local school district also was a driving factor to improving food access for local residents. And it’s been supported by funding from county, state and federal sources. Down the street, the school district has also launched a clothing closet where families can go to get free clothes.

Chavez said the food pantry is part of an attempt to meet “the most basic needs for our kids so they can go to school and learn.”

“We’re trying to remove barriers to learning for kids,” he said, during an interview at the new pantry. “We’re really excited about what the future holds. This is even better than what I envisioned.”

Chavez and Alba both acknowledged Whitlock, the former village mayor who died suddenly in March. He was passionate about helping residents in the community, including by supporting the new pantry.

“His passing – it’s created a big void,” Chavez said. “I’m hoping we can continue his legacy. That’s something I can aspire to.”

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 information visit, SouthNMnews.org or SurNMnoticias.org.