BELEN — A charitable organization that has been feeding Belen-area families for decades is once again looking for a new location.

The Belen Area Food Pantry has been distributing food out of the old Belen Consolidated Schools transportation building at the crossroads of Third Street and Castillo Avenue for several years, but were recently told they would have to vacate the premises by the end of July.

Since then, Joe Portio, president of Belen Area Food Pantry, a nonprofit organization, has been working diligently to find a new location.

Belen Area Food Pantry President Joe Portio, left, and volunteer Robin Holbrook, say they are able to feed more than 4,000 people a month from the current location — a location they have to vacate by the end of July.

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
Belen Area Food Pantry President Joe Portio, left, and volunteer Robin Holbrook, say they are able to feed more than 4,000 people a month from the current location — a location they have to vacate by the end of July.

“A little more than a month ago (in May), we were notified by (Belen Consolidated Schools) Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez that we needed to move,” Portio said.

Portio said he was told the BAFP, which serves families from within the Belen Schools district’s boundaries, was supposed to be at the current location only for a short term, but he wasn’t aware of that stipulation. He does remember turning in a contract to a former superintendent, but when he met with Sanchez, the superintendent was able to locate the paperwork, but it had never been presented to or approved by the former board of education.

“No, we don’t have a signed lease,” Portio said.

“We’ve been here for more than three years,” said Robin Holbrook, past president and a volunteer with BAFP since 2009.

Sanchez, who wasn’t the superintendent when the BAFP moved in, said the district is currently in negotiations with H2 Academic Solutions in Belen for a teen center at the location. The memorandum of understanding between the school district and the local tutoring center could possibly be considered by the Belen Board of Education at its July 13 meeting.

Sanchez said the teen center, which will be called Rocket Teen Center, will be paying for utilities, which the Belen Area Food Pantry hasn’t been able to do since they moved in. The superintendent said the center will provide in-kind services to the district with programs that will directly help Belen students such as tutoring, alternative education programs and various types of classes.

“These programs and classes will directly be helping Belen students,” Sanchez said.

Holly Chavez, the board president of H2 Academic Solutions Scholarship Fund (a nonprofit organization), said they had been negotiating with the city of Belen for another space for the teen center, but when that didn’t work out, city officials told Sanchez about their idea.

“This teen center will be a safe place for kids to hang out,” Chavez said. “We’ll provide services there, different types of classes with 30 community partners. The best way to describe it is that it will be a lot of fun but it will also have a lot of potential services for children.”

Chavez said along with a variety of classes, they’ll have resources for local children, from counseling to information about health care.

“We won’t be housing them, but we could provide a safe space for them,” she said.

Once the space is approved by the local school board and state PED, Chavez said fundraising efforts will be made to buy equipment and supplies.

As for the food pantry, Chavez says she feels bad for them, but has a similar mission in wanting to help the community, particularly area children.

“We love the food pantry,” she said. “We’d love them to succeed because the community needs them.”

The food BAFP clients are provided include meat, produce, dairy, non-perishable items as well as fruit and vegetables.

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
The food BAFP clients are provided include meat, produce, dairy, non-perishable items as well as fruit and vegetables.

Superintendent Sanchez agrees.

“They do a great service, and I feel bad for them,” the superintendent said. “I’m between a rock and a hard place, but I made a commitment to Mrs. Chavez. The fact is, when it comes down to it, we don’t have a valid contract with the pantry.”

Holbrook said the pantry was established about 30 years ago when the Ministerial Alliance, a group of local churches, operated it out of the annex building of the First Baptist Church of Belen. Because of space constraints, the volunteers search for a bigger building and were successful in finding a city-owned building on Becker Avenue.

After a lot of cleaning, repairs and renovations, the food pantry relocated to the new space in April 2014. About four years later, they were told they would have to relocate once again because the city was building a new fire station and construction would cause a hazard for clients picking up food.

The next move was to the BAFP’s current location in 2018, which they’ve been able expand more than double in space and equipment, thanks to a grant from the Roadrunner Food Bank.

“The school district graciously offered us this location, and we gratefully accepted,” Holbrook said. “We have additional refrigerators and freezers and a cooler. We can now distribute milk and eggs (on a regular basis). Here, we have the capacity to distribute more food than we once were able to and to a lot more people.”

“We’re able to give people quite a bit of food,” Portio said. “It’s not going to fill up your pantry, but it sure does help. How many families out there need this? A lot. This (the BAFP) has been a blessing, not just to us, but to the community.”

Currently, the Belen Area Food Pantry serves about 2,500 households each month — estimating four people per household. Both Holbrook and Portio say most of, if not all, their clients are senior citizens. The food pantry is open for distribution twice a week, from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“When I first made contact with (the superintendent), they wanted us out in 30 days,” Portio said. “I told them there was no physical way I could stop food from coming in and find a new place in 30 days, especially a place with enough space to hold the volume of food that we have. Then (two weeks ago) I was told we had until the end of July.”

Portio said he’s been talking with city officials, who have been trying to help find a new location for the BAFP, but at this point, nothing has been found. He’s also been in contact with several property owners in the Belen area but, again, nothing has panned out.

“I have a personal business and I haven’t been able to open it all this week because every day, I’ve been meeting with property owners, calling them and looking for places we could potentially obtain,” Portio said last week. “The problem we’re finding is they want an excessive amount of money. What they don’t understand is that we’re a nonprofit organization and we do everything based on donations.”

Portio said while they do get food from TEFAP, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, from the Roadrunner Food Bank, the monetary donations they currently use to buy more food would possibly have to go to paying for rent.

While they’d like to remain in the Hub City, Portio and Holbrook are also searching for locations outside the city — still within the school district’s boundaries.

“We’re looking everywhere — Rio Communities and in the county,” Portio said. “We need to find a place that fits our needs, so it needs to be a big building.”

If they can’t find a new location within the next few weeks, Portio said they’ll have to shut down and stop distributing food to those in need.

“We’re not asking for a handout; we’re just asking for help,” he said.

If anyone is able to help the Belen Area Food Pantry, call Joe Portio at 505-702-1665.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.