Aug. 15—Alfred Romero knows what it's like growing up with an empty fridge.
He recalled living with a drug-addicted parent and going to the Food Depot when he was 10 years old to make sure he had enough to eat on weekends.
It's a story he knows is still far too common for others.
Roughly 20 years later, Romero, now a manager for a local FedEx office, decided he wanted to do something to give back to the organization that once helped him. His method: rallying his co-workers to collect donations for the Neighbor to Neighbor Fund Drive.
The 11th annual fundraiser is returning in September for National Hunger Action month to benefit the Food Depot, Northern New Mexico's largest food bank.
The drive each year pits Santa Fe-area neighborhoods and businesses into competitions of sorts to see who can solicit the most donations.
"It gives me a chance to be able to give back on a bigger scale, more than I ever could alone," Romero said.
In order to boost donations, Romero's FedEx office is taking part in a friendly competition with a United Parcel Service office in Las Vegas, N.M.
"We have been the top donator in our category for five years since we started doing it; I don't plan on that changing anytime soon," Romero said.
The funds collected during the drive go directly to the Food Depot, which provides food for residents in nine counties and to 81 partner agencies. Last year more than 140 neighborhoods, businesses and organizations raised a record haul of $201,429 — enough to buy more that 1 million pounds of food or 806,716 meals.
This year, organizers set a goal of collecting $225,000 by Sept. 17. They said fundraisers like Neighbor to Neighbor are as important as ever, as families still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic deal with rising food prices.
Jill Dixon, the Food Depot's deputy director, said the organization is starting to see the need creep back up to levels experienced in 2020 and 2021, when demand skyrocketed due to the pandemic.
"I think that that speaks to the fact that people were really economically vulnerable before the pandemic," Dixon said. "They were devastated in the pandemic, and there really hasn't been enough time to recover economically because it takes years for families that are living paycheck to paycheck to build savings back up to get caught up on the bills."
The Food Depot estimates one-sixth of New Mexicans are dealing with hunger.
According to a 2022 Feeding America report, 11.3 percent of Santa Fe residents face food insecurity. That rate rises to 20.3 percent for children under 18. The organization gathers data by looking at individual counties' income levels and food-cost estimates and conducting surveys.
Wildfires in Northern New Mexico pushed the need even further after residents were forced to leave their homes, some losing everything.
As the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak Fire burned, the Food Depot provided thousands of meals to evacuees and firefighters.
"The need is really getting more critical," said Carole Owens, Food Depot organizer for the Candlelight neighborhood. "People are finding food costs have risen along with everything else, so the drive is really hugely important now."
Owens has been a part of the drive since it was founded by Linda Flatt in 2011. In the past, the organization collected non-perishable food items, but switched over to collecting monetary donations in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Owens recalled the days when volunteers would collect food donations throughout their neighborhoods.
"People would put out sacks of groceries on the given day by their sidewalk, and we would pick it up," she said. "It was really nice because it connected us in a very tangible way."
After the switch, organizers realized they could get even more food out to people by buying in bulk.
Flatt said every dollar donated to the Food Depot buys five pounds of food that goes directly to families.
"That was one of the reasons why the Food Depot and Neighbor to Neighbor came to the conclusion that we will never be collecting food again," Flatt said.
Liddy Padilla, from the Las Acequias neighborhood on the south side, said some people in Santa Fe — including people at the Mary Esther Gonzales Senior Center — rely on the food bank to keep their kitchens stocked. She said a majority of the seniors at the center live on their Social Security payments, which isn't always enough to get by.
"If they can't afford to buy their medication or can't afford to buy food, they'll go without," Padilla said.
Padilla has take part in the drive since its inception, getting her neighbors to participate in whatever way they can.
"Some of our neighbors are probably more lower-income than in other areas, so maybe our donations aren't as big as other places, but we still keep joining every year," Padilla said.