Faith-based organizations across the county are providing various community services amid the coronavirus pandemic. Here in New Mexico, the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee has started a “Farm to Food Bank” project to help local pantries, farmers, and community members – each facing their own challenges around food during this health crisis. Director Sayrah Namaste spoke with KUNM about the program and how it came about.
SAYRAH NAMASTE: In early March, when the pandemic first hit, I was talking to a farmer from Albuquerque. I asked him if it was affecting him, and he said it was. And then he told me something really sobering – that he hadn't made a sale in a single week, which I knew meant he had no income that week. And it just really struck me that small farms could go under. And we need to keep our small farms going, and that's part of the work we do at American Friends Service Committee, is supporting small-scale organic agriculture. So, I got the idea to create Farm to Food Bank, whereby my organization would buy food from local farmers that we already have relationships with and get that food where it's most needed. So, we started with Roadrunner Food Bank and working with the Argi-Cultura Network, which is a cooperative of farmers in the South Valley. And then it's expanded to include more farmers, and we're also including more food banks. We've added East Central Ministries in the International District, the Acoma Senior Center, and it'll be food grown by Acoma Pueblo farmers.
KUNM: What are the needs locally that this project is hoping to fill?
NAMASTE: I received an email for Roadrunner Food Bank, and they shared that in the last two weeks they spent double what they spent annually on their food purchases, which is a shocking number. That's just Roadrunner. The other food banks are facing similar. So, that was one aspect. And then on the farm side, this time of year is when farmers are purchasing a lot of the things they'll need to grow for the year: seeds, irrigation and soil amendments. And now they have new things they’re buying: face masks, gloves, new packaging. A lot of food can't be sold out in the open at farmers' markets, it has to be packaged now. They can't recoup their expenses until later in the year when the food is ready to be harvested and they can sell it. And if they don't know if the restaurants are going to be open, and the schools aren't buying fresh stuff… when they don't know what they're going to bring in, it's pretty hard to put money up-front and take that risk right now to purchase those things. So, with Farm to Food Bank, we immediately bought food from farmers that didn't have a market, so that food didn't rot, and we got it right away to the food bank. But in the long term, we're buying the farmers their supplies now. Each farmer’s getting up to $500 worth of supplies, and then they're promising – and they signed an agreement with us – that between now and September they will give back $500 worth of produce to the food banks.
KUNM: This campaign is organized by the American Friends Service Committee, which is a Quaker – or Religious Society of Friends – organization. How would you say this work is rooted in Quaker faith and values?
NAMASTE: So, the American Friends Service Committee started in 1917, with the idea of promoting peace with justice, and as a way of putting Quaker faith into action. And Quakers have a belief in the humanity of all people. So, this project of supporting people who are hungry, people who are not able to afford food, as well as supporting small scale, organic, regenerative, sustainable agriculture is a way of putting their faith into action.
KUNM: How do you think about the importance of faith and faith communities during a time of crisis?
NAMASTE: It can be a place of comfort; it can be a place of community – even if we're socially distant. And that's important for people when things are bad: when there's a death, when there's loss, when there's suffering, people who come from a faith background turn to their faith to cope and to find comfort and community.
KUNM: Many people might not normally consider themselves religious or part of a church. Can they still get involved if they want to support the work you're doing?
NAMASTE: Definitely. Our organization was started by Quakers, but now it includes people of all faiths and no faith. So yes, they're welcome to go to our website, and they will find information about the program. We've had people give financial donations and donations of face masks to the farmers. So, there's different ways that people are trying to help out.
KUNM: Is there anything else that you would want to share with me that I haven't asked?
NAMASTE: One thing I didn't share with you is that it's been so meaningful for the farmers to know that their food is going to the food banks. As much as they love the restaurants that buy their food, some of those restaurants they can't afford to eat at. And those are great restaurants that support local and organic, but knowing their food is going to reach people who often don't have access to organic, local food is so meaningful for them. It's kind of amazing to talk to farmers about this project.
This story is part of Tuesday's episode of Your NM Government, “Keeping The Faith”. Catch the show every weeknight at 7:30 p.m. on 89.9 KUNM and wherever you get your podcasts. Your NM Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.