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Sunland Park seeks $4M for food pantry


SUNLAND PARK – Residents and advocates are asking state lawmakers to fully fund a proposed new food pantry that would help alleviate hunger in Sunland Park, which is grappling with high levels of food insecurity.

Advocates say the lack of an emergency food storage and distribution hub in Sunland Park is a significant missing link in the hunger safety net for southern Doña Ana County. Now, a key organization supplying food in Sunland Park relies upon a mobile food pantry, meaning if residents can’t attend its designated hours and dates, they’ll miss out on assistance. Also, without a building, nonprofits aren’t able to store food locally.

Residents turned out by the dozens to a meeting in recent weeks to express their opinions and pose questions about the proposal. The city of Sunland Park last year secured $1.35 million for the proposed pantry, and an architectural firm is already working on plans. 

But Sunland Park, in coordination with local advocacy groups, is seeking another $4 million in capital outlay dollars during the New Mexico legislative session that ends Feb. 15.

Elisa Roman, who’s lived in Sunland Park for more than four decades, was among 60 people who turned out Jan. 11 to a meeting about the pantry. She described the pantry as “necessary” in the community.

“There is always somebody lacking food,” she said after the session, hosted by city and food-pantry officials at San Martin de Porres Catholic Church.

Lorenzo Alba Jr., executive director of the Las Cruces-based Casa de Peregrinos emergency food pantry, is advocating for the new Sunland Park facility. He said $4 million is the ideal amount. If the money is issued this year, “we’re going to be able to put this thing to bed by 2025,” he said, referring to the completion of construction.

Residents, mostly speaking Spanish, posed questions and weighed in on aspects of the plans, including that they want the facility to have a large enough waiting room to accommodate clients.

A phased project?

City officials have pitched the request to lawmakers, including at a legislative listening session in Las Cruces late last year, prior to the session’s start. But advocates said they’re concerned because lawmakers suggested phasing the funding for the building – meaning they might not grant the city's full request this session.

Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea said construction costs tend to increase every year. So, by phasing the project, it could result in increased spending – and delays in building – going forward.

“If we can't get the $4 million, it's going to be a little bit more costly down the road,” he said.

A site for the pantry has already been selected on city-owned land next to Doña Ana Community College's Sunland Park campus. It's also near where the city plans to relocate its MVD office, Perea said. He predicts residents from a broader area will visit the pantry once it’s operational.

“Hopefully, we'd be able to expand beyond our limits and serve other parts of southern Doña Ana County,” he said.

The city will own the new building, while Casa de Peregrinos is expected to operate it, likely with involvement of Southern New Mexico Project, a key nonprofit food distributor in Sunland Park. Casa de Peregrinos also runs a large food distribution center and warehouse in Las Cruces.

Councilor: ‘We’re a different city now’

Now, the Southern New Mexico Project is overwhelmed by demand from residents for food assistance. It has a rotation schedule to distribute its limited allotment of baskets to residents, meaning a family might go six months before they are eligible to get their next basket of food.

Sharply rising food prices, a steep curtailment of pandemic benefits to Americans nearly a year ago, and time lags at the state level in processing SNAP benefits – once known as food stamps – are contributing to increased demand for food assistance.

Sunland Park City Councilor Alberto Jaramillo, who attended the public meeting, said he’s concerned people have the wrong impression of the city’s government due to high-profile corruption scandals that happened more than a decade ago and, at the state level, officials might be hesitant to fund projects here. But new elected officials are on board, he said, and the city has turned over a new leaf in the years since. The community is growing in population and economically, he noted.

“As we speak right now, our city is healthy financially,” he said. “We’re a different city now.”

Rafael Ramos-Lacen, executive director of the Southern New Mexico Project, said he welcomes a new pantry, but he expressed skepticism about lawmakers’ willingness to support the city’s hunger relief efforts after his own attempts to connect with them have fallen flat.

“I leave messages to them,” he said. “I send emails. Nothing, nothing, nothing happens.”

A USDA report released in October found that 17 million households across the country were food insecure in 2022, up from 13.5 million households the previous year, a 26 percent increase. Non-Hispanic Black households and Hispanic households experienced higher rates of food insecurity than non-Hispanic White households and other groups.

Sunland Park, food pantry