Knowing food can be scarce for Valencia County families and sometimes even harder to come by during the pandemic, local volunteers and organizations are making use of a federal program to get nutritious, fresh food into the hands of those who need it most.

On Friday, Feb. 5, a semi truck hauling 1,300 boxes of food was met by a small army of volunteers from local churches, businesses and community centers to distribute the food across the county.

The boxes come from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a USDA grant program that partners with national, regional and local distributors, to purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat products from American producers of all sizes.

Distributors then package these products into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving people in need.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Volunteers load up boxes of food from the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program to distribute throughout the county. The free, 35-pound boxes are distributed on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Belen resident Wendee Doster is the organizer of the effort and says with a laugh that all she’s done is make a bunch of phone calls. Previously, she volunteered with Food Rescue, which gathers unused foods from restaurants and grocery stores and gets them into the hands of agencies that can distribute them.

“There’s not a lot of that kind of stuff down here, but Food Rescue contacted me about these USDA grants and told me they were looking for places that really had a need,” Doster said.

The three-month program will provide 1,300 35-pound boxes to the community every week through the end of April, Doster said, with distribution locations across the county taking 50 to 150 boxes at a time.

“The biggest feedback I got from the distribution locations that first day was, ‘We could have used twice as many,’” she said. “That’s a sad statement on how badly this is needed, but it’s also a blessing.”

Noelle Chavez, co-owner of H2 Academics in Belen, volunteered her business as a distribution point. She said on the first day of distribution, cars were lined up three hours before the distribution time began.

“We had 100 boxes here — we sent 50 of ours up to El Cerro Mission — and they were gone in 25 minutes,” Chavez said.

The boxes contain a variety of foods, including milk, cooked chicken, sour cream, yogurt, potatoes, onions, fruits and other vegetables, Doster said.

“I just had the idea. I can’t take credit,” she said. “I made a whole lot of phone calls. I didn’t know any of those people three weeks ago and now we have this big, awesome community going now.”

Doster also wants to give kudos to the Belen Consolidated Schools and BCS director of support services David Carter for helping make the distribution easier. The semi parked at the old ALCO building, which is owned by the district, and Carter manned he forklift, unloading pallets of 150 boxes at a time to load into waiting trucks and trailers which were going to the various public distribution points.

The boxes will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis each Friday at various locations. Distribution start times may vary depending on how quickly the semi can be unloaded and boxes brought to the pick up locations.

Distribution times and locations are:

•H2 Academic Solutions, 506 Becker Ave., Belen; 10:30 a.m.

•El Cerro Community Center, 309 El Cerro Mission Blvd.; 10:30 a.m.

•Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, St. Teresa of Calcutta Soup and Blessing Kitchen, 101-A N. 10th St.; 12 p.m.

•Valencia County Cowboy Church, 1 AT&T Road, Los Lunas; 11 a.m.

•San Juan Diego Mission, 621 Meadow Lake Road; 12 p.m.

•Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, N.M. 304, Veguita; 11:30 a.m.

•Peralta Methodist Church, 25 Wesley Road; 1 p.m.

To further serve the community, Chavez said a group of about 20 additional community volunteers is also participating in the USDA program and will be distributing food boxes every Tuesday through the end of April.

Those boxes will be distributed starting at 9:30 a.m. at the following locations:

•Belen Senior Center, 715 S. Main St.

•Bosque Farms Senior Center, 950 N. Bosque Farms Loop

•Del Rio Community Center, 351 Rio Communities Blvd.

•First Baptist Los Lunas, 914 Los Lentes SE

•Fred Luna Multigenertional Center, 197 Don Pasqual Road, Los Lunas

•Holy Ghost and Fire Church, 156 Caldwell Ave., Belen

•Meadow Lake Community Center, 100 Cuerro Lane

•Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, 2674 N.M. 47, Peralta

•Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Parish, N.M. 304, Veguita

•St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, 113 La Luna Pl., Rio Communities

•Sunshine Church, 617 N. Main St., Belen

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.