Near the climax of Charles Dickens’ famous novella A Christmas Carol, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted with a vision of two children, named Ignorance and Want. Shocked, he is informed that these children belong to all of humanity:
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
More than an author, Dickens acted as a kind of Victorian John the Baptist – crying repentance to a society that was often all too content to brush aside the poor and destitute. The echoes of his writings reach forward even into a present-day corner of New Mexico. But thankfully, while Want is ever-present, there is less Ignorance, as evidenced by The Community Pantry, which has been fighting against hunger in Gallup and northwest New Mexico since 1999.
Each winter, the demand for food is so high that The Community Pantry in Gallup, NM has to close their registration to new families. This year 2500 families are registered to receive food packages, but that number could easily reach up to 4000, a demand that currently exceeds limits.
“I think this is when people stress the most – ‘how am I gonna take care of my family, and still take care of buying them a present for Christmas,’” said Hilda Kendall, Chief Operating Officer for the Community Pantry. “It’s a very stressful time, and it seems like [for] families that are already down on their luck, another problem will come up. The car will break down or something. It just seems to be never-ending for them.”
The Navajo Nation and McKinley County, which surround Gallup, are known as part of a “food desert”. Many families find themselves driving hours to reach a grocery store, and in Native American communities, a lack of access to sustainable methods of agriculture, fishing and hunting is not only a loss of food, but also traditional methods of gathering and socializing.
At the Community Pantry, registered families must use their monthly box of between 50 and 60 pounds as a supplement to assistance programs like WiC and Food Stamps. The pantry also runs a thriving garden program – families are assigned a plot, learn how to properly garden, and then harvest their own fresh produce.
The pantry has made enormous strides since its inception, but the fight against hunger and malnutrition is still an uphill battle. And for over a decade, youth and parents from the three catholic parishes in Gallup have been aiding the pantry.
On Saturday morning, October 28, around 50 middle and high school students gather with their parents in the Family Center at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Debbie Trujillo is the Director of Religious Education for the Cathedral. She organizes them into groups of four or five, plus an accompanying parent, and assigns each group a specific neighborhood in Gallup.
“It’s a tri-parish food drive to collect canned goods and non-perishable items for the Gallup Community Pantry,” Trujillo explains. “We do it for pre-Confirmation and Confirmation students.”
Each student who enrolls in Confirmation classes must fulfill a certain number of community service hours. This food drive is one of the largest and most organized service efforts of the year.
“So many kids nowadays have what they need, but they don’t realize what’s outside of our church environment that needs to be taken care of, and it can’t always be taken care of by a priest or a nun. We’re supposed to do that also,” Trujillo said. “I just don’t think that it’s all book work when you’re doing Confirmation – you’ve got to learn how to go out there and help your fellow man and so what Jesus would do, and be out in your community.”
After receiving their assigned neighborhood, the students turned the drive into a friendly competition, with free movie tickets for the group with the highest number of pounds of food items.
“You just go and knock on people’s door and tell them ‘we’re doing a food drive for the church, do you want to donate non-perishable foods?’”, said Jaelyn Johnson, a second year confirmation student, who mentions she’s not shy about approaching strangers for donations because she’s “usually pretty loud anyways.” Her friends and mother laugh at this, nodding their heads.
Throughout the day, donations were dropped off at the pantry to be weighed and sorted. By the end of the drive the students had collected 3,460 pounds of food.
Kendall believes the pantry would have far less food to give to needy families without these service projects.
“We would just give out what I can get from the stores, and it would not meet the needs of our community.”
When asked how many of these families have children or elderly, she immediately replies “All of them. All of them. I have very few families that are single in my database. And it’s not uncommon right now for us to have grandmothers and grandfathers that are raising their grandkids.”
Alice Perez is the executive director at the Community Pantry. She explains that even though registration is closed at 2500 families, the pantry strives to turn no one away. The tri-parish drive helps the pantry to stock enough food to serve in emergency situations. A teacher who conducts a home visit may see that there is no food in a student’s house, or extended family members might find themselves suddenly caring for young children.
“We help out our elderly, because a lot of the grandparents nowadays are raising kids,” Perez said. “They’re already on a fixed income, and they’re not receiving the benefits of having those kids – the financial benefits. And so it’s hard to feed them.”
Food providers also have to contend with rising rates of obesity and diabetes. The Confirmation students deliberately ask for canned food or items like rice, beans and pasta not only because of the long shelf life of dried foods, but also because of their higher nutritional value over snack items.
Still, Kendall says, when facing hunger, every food item helps.
“Right now I’m just worried about getting food in the household so they have something to eat. Food banks are looking into going a little bit more healthy, trying to meet those diabetic needs of some of our people with diabetes. But the food items that they need are a little bit more expensive, and stores are not likely to donate that type of product to me. I get items that are plentiful – soda pop, potato chips, candy. Of course all the canned vegetables, rice, pastas, beans. Those items are what I’m really looking for. But it’s not uncommon for somebody to get a pastry in their box. It’s something that we don’t want to go to waste either.”
After the holiday season, Kendall and Perez hope the immediate demand for food will ease, but each pound collected by the confirmation groups, or other service projects, is one more pound that will help fill an empty stomach. And for this holiday season, the specters of Want and Ignorance are dimmed, if not completely vanished.