ANTHONY, N.M. – Nestled among shady pecan orchards, Gadsden High School was eerily silent one recent morning, save for the murmurs of an eight-person team preparing 275 meals in the cafeteria. The lunch: a cold turkey sandwich with marinara sauce and a fruit cup. The breakfast: a muffin.
Ironically, the team’s workload has lessened in the months since the pandemic took hold. Before the Gadsden Independent School District closed its 28 school buildings in March, the workers had been responsible for whipping up 1,000 lunches a day — and that was just for the high school.
It isn’t that the need has disappeared. Far from it. The problem, rather, is access. “We’re very spread out, and families with working parents are having issues getting to the schools,” explained Maria Guerra, head of the district’s nutrition program. “There’s no one to pick up the meals.”
Even in pre-pandemic times, this small city in southern Dona Aña County struggled. About 50 percent of its school-aged children live in poverty, and the school district is authorized to provide free lunch to every one of its 14,200 students.
When the COVID-19 crisis swept the state, hunger grew, spurred by job loss and remote learning that made it difficult for families to take advantage of the program. Diana Gonzalez, a 36-year-old single mother of six with four school-aged children at home, doesn’t own a car. Once a month, she hitches a ride with a friend to pick up a food basket prepared by school district social workers. It lasts about two weeks, she says, leaving her to otherwise rely on food stamps to feed her kids.
“It’s been tough having enough food while trying to stay home,” said Gonzalez. But, owing in part to the help from the school, “thank God we’ve had enough.”
Food banks have stepped up their game to fill the gap for needy families like hers, as have nonprofits like Concilio Campesino del Sudoeste (Farmworkers Council of the Southwest). Based in nearby Las Cruces, it has distributed some 3,000 pounds of food to families around Anthony over the past two months. “With the pandemic, our volunteers have become essential workers,” said Lizbeth Mata, the organization’s community coordinator.
Much of the food comes from the Anthony Youth Farm, where a 16-year-old in a black hoodie has become one of the more senior workers after a three-year apprenticeship. Monique Hernandez balances a full high school schedule and a second job as a caregiver for seniors with her work at the farm, on the outskirts of the city, picking and packing vegetables between virtual classes. She plans to go to college and dreams of becoming a doctor — one who comes home to serve her community.
“I want to be able to become someone great in life and come back to my community,” she said. “Because if we don’t stay together, who’s going to have our backs?”
Meanwhile, she weaves her way through rows of squash, watermelon and green beans. “These will be ready tomorrow,” she says, pushing aside a yellow flower to reveal a bright green zucchini. Normally, she explains, she would have picked the vegetable already. Now she’s letting all the crops grow larger, hopeful that another half inch will help some family stretch their food a little longer.
To Monique, whose only farming experience was a summer helping her parents pick pecans, this work is personal. She often brings food home for her parents and five siblings, and anything extra goes to family in Juárez, 25 miles to the south and across the border.
“There’s a pride in having grown that food and in being there every step of the way,” she said. “Eating it or seeing it go to someone who needs it is a great reward.”
Lines at food pantries “a thousand cars long”
Bordering Texas and Mexico at the southern end of the state, Dona Aña County is mostly farm- and ranchland, speckled with small towns. Anthony, which straddles the Texas state line midway between Las Cruces and El Paso, is emblematic of the region’s rural outposts: a downtown strip, comprising a few blocks sprinkled with gas stations, quick loan companies, and the occasional taqueria, quickly gives way to vast fields of pecan orchards and dairy farms. The majority of residents work in the service industry or agriculture, and many are Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Dona Aña is the largest producer of crops in New Mexico, accounting for a quarter of the state’s non-livestock output. It has the third-most farms and the highest number of farmworkers in the state. Yet, even while farming is one of the few industries in the county that has thrived during the pandemic (there’s been a 52 percent rise in gross income from 2019, according to New Mexico Economic Department), that growth hasn’t necessarily been reflected in the lives of locals. Unemployment claims skyrocketed to 10,000—up from 2,000 at the same time last year— and Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, estimates that overall food insecurity in the area has risen about 5 percent, to 21.3 percent of the population.
In a nutshell: Those who produce food for the rest of the state and nation have struggled to feed themselves.
In normal times, Anthony Youth Farm’s main mission is to provide extra income and mentorship to local teens like Monique. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the farm’s three acres have become a source of emergency food for a hungry community.
Alma Maquitico, one of the farm’s adult supervisors, described lines at local food pantries that are “a thousand cars long.” The handouts are often limited to dry goods, and a well-rounded supply of fresh fruit and vegetables can be hard to find.
Irma Garcilazo has learned that lesson.
Originally from Durango, Mexico, the 55-year-old got her U.S. citizenship about five years ago; her husband, Leonardo, is undocumented. He spent three months in a detention center earlier this year after a raid on the factory where he worked. Garcilazo almost sold their home in a trailer park to pay the $10,000 bond for his release, until a friend stepped in and loaned her the money.
Food has always been at the center of Garcilazo’s life. Her mother was locally famous for her chiles rellenos, and Garcilazo brags that she won her husband over with a plate of tacos. Before marrying Leonardo, she worked in restaurant kitchens for 19 years; she still makes menudo for her kids, grandkids, and anyone else lucky enough to stop by her house on a Sunday. She is now earning $100 per week butchering meat to help pay back the $10,000 loan.
She has helped her family survive this difficult year by pooling food stamps and driving her beat-up Lincoln to various food banks. One pantry recently filled her box with large bottles of ketchup and bags of Sour Patch Kids candy — problematic for a type 2 diabetic like Garcilazo.
“It can be hard to eat the right things,” she says. Almost a quarter of her large dining room table is devoted to pills to handle her diabetes and hypertension. As she heats up some leftover menudo and butters slices of bread in her small kitchen, she worries about getting Leonardo’s weight back up after his detention. “I didn’t recognize him,” she says. “And he’s still too thin.”
The undocumented community, which by most measures forms the backbone of Anthony’s agricultural economy, is almost certainly the city’s most vulnerable population. According to a 2016 study by the New American Economy, a national immigration research organization, almost 60 percent of farmworkers and 42 percent of animal production workers (such as dairy farmers) in New Mexico are immigrants; of those, an estimated 20 percent are undocumented. These laborers are typically ineligible for government assistance such as food stamps, unemployment, and COVID-19 relief funds; some are barred from food pantries because they lack government-issued IDs.
Just off Lincoln Street across from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, the Women’s Intercultural Center is one of the nonprofits that serve this vulnerable population, offering everything from citizenship classes to guitar lessons — and now it serves as a food distribution hub. Its director, Mary Carter, a no-nonsense former city planner, describes her town as a place where people are used to living “close to the bone.” For many, making do with less is a way of life: “People here are resilient. They will always find a way to survive.”
Anthony “has the strongest peer support network I’ve seen,” she adds. “If you need a ride, someone will give you one. If you need food, someone will help you get it.”
Garcilazo is a regular at the center: She attended English and citizenship classes there and has known Carter for over 15 years. Now she lines up most weeks to pick up chicken and vegetables. Despite her family’s challenges, Garcilazo insists she has struggled far less than others.
“So many people have problems with food,” she says. She often shares what she gets with friends who don’t have cars, acting as a one-woman delivery service for her neighbors: “I pick up the food for them and spread it around.”