Heroes: One grocery bag at a time

An army of homegrown activists keeps schoolchildren fed

By Dena Miller
Posted 6/26/20

The struggle has been real the last several months.

In what felt like an instant, our community shifted as if on a tectonic plate. Schools, shops, restaurants and galleries were shuttered along roadways devoid of traffic, tourists or any signs typical of our bustling community.

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Heroes: One grocery bag at a time

An army of homegrown activists keeps schoolchildren fed

Posted

The struggle has been real the last several months.

In what felt like an instant, our community shifted as if on a tectonic plate. Schools, shops, restaurants and galleries were shuttered along roadways devoid of traffic, tourists or any signs typical of our bustling community.

Behind this quiet scene, however, was a cadre of volunteers - the homegrown activists at the heart of our community, if you will - determined to meet the needs of one of our most vulnerable populations: the children in Taos who live with food insecurity.

Some background: Several years ago Jill Cline, youth minister at St. James Episcopal Church, identified about two dozen Taos High School students experiencing such an instability. In response, she established a Friday backpack program to ensure those students went home stocked with food for the weekend.

A year later, when a pilot community-based program was implemented at Enos Garcia Elementary School, even more children experiencing food insecurity were identified. By the time the coronavirus pandemic hit over 100 children were receiving weekend provisions from St. James.

The closing of schools was certain to disrupt the program for the unforeseeable future. In their concern, Siena Sanderson, director of the Nurturing Center at EGES, and Paula Oxoby-Hayett, coordinator for the Community School's program, set out to work with Cline in expanding food distribution even further.

A series of grants - the Keeler Foundation, Quail Roost and Altogether NM - provided a startup fund with which Cline began accumulating bulk foods through The Food Depot. As the word spread, support poured in from local sources, such as Taos Community Foundation, Taos Milagro Rotary Club and St. James' own youth program, Common Ground, which made the first donation.

"Our goal was to distribute 700 bags of groceries once every two weeks," Cline said, which began happening at the end of March. "It seemed daunting but with our grant funding and private donations we're now able to guarantee biweekly distributions of fresh produce and nonperishables through the end of July."

In addition to Super Save and Smith's, who allow the program to purchase goods at wholesale prices, Cid's Food Market has recently helped round out bags with donated items, and Twirl will once again donate toys and activity items for this week's bag, scheduled for distribution on June 12.

Now it's one thing to have a stockpile of food large enough to fill those bags over four months; it's quite another to arrange for delivery of goods, packaging of the grocery bags and their distribution.

"Here is where the community really stepped in," said Trish Curran, physical education teacher at EGES and who worked closely with Sanderson and Oxoby-Hayett. "The town of Taos and Kit Carson Electric Cooperative provided transportation of bulk goods from St. James to the EGES Early Childhood Center, where bags are packaged by a small army of school personnel and other volunteers.

"Getting the bags to families was the next hurdle," Curran continued. "When we started, there were just three buses running, two school 'grab-n-go' sites, with Siena and me covering routes for families that couldn't access these. We eventually expanded to 13 bus routes and four pickup sites for meals, thanks to the wonderful cooperation of Taos schools, Dr. Lillian Torrez, our superintendent; EGES principal Sarah Bradley; and assistant principal Nicole Mora-Atencio."

Looking back, Curran mused, "This program came about on the fly, out of the COVID-19 crisis and needs of local families. There really was no blueprint for how to implement it, and, especially, there's really no words to thank each and every person and organization who have contributed to this."

A century ago Theodore Roosevelt said, "This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in."

And, however unscripted its roots, what's come to be known as the Community Grocery Bag initiative has done a master share in making Taos a singular example of Roosevelt's vision.

For more information about the program, or to make a donation, call Sienna Sanderson at (575) 770-6343 or Trish Curran at (575) 779-0446.

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