For New Mexicans facing homelessness, food insecurity, serious medical conditions and other hardships, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified a difficult situation.
“The typical family is already stressed right now,” said Jeffrey Hoehn, executive director of Cuidando los Niños, an Albuquerque nonprofit that provides services for children and families experiencing homelessness. “Imagine if you just emerged from homelessness. You’re trying to get your life back on track, and all of a sudden, a pandemic hits.”
Many of the parents served by Cuidando los Niños had recently started working when the pandemic began, and their jobs were suspended, creating more uncertainty and stress about how they would feed their families.
“Being able to get healthy, nutritious meals was a real challenge,” Hoehn said. “A lot of our families are worried about food and where their next meal’s going to come from.”
During the earlier months of the public health emergency, Cuidando los Niños had to halt some in-person services, such as its early childhood development program. Yet, like many nonprofits that are supporting New Mexico’s most vulnerable community members during an unprecedented time, Cuidando los Niños had to find new ways to continue helping families with their most pressing needs, including access to food.
Fortunately, United Way of Central New Mexico (UWCNM) moved quickly to establish the Feeding Families Fund in mid-April. The Feeding Families Fund helps nonprofit organizations provide their clients with meals from local restaurants. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBSNM) kicked off the fund with a $15,000 donation. The grant came from a larger $250,000 donation to UWCNM through BCBSNM’s COVID-19 Community Collaborative Grant Fund.
“The donation from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico was our first corporate gift for the Feeding Families Fund,” said Jeanette Brahl, UWCNM chief marketing officer. “We knew that if one company took the lead, others would follow, and indeed they have. The companies and individuals willing to provide the dollars toward this made all the difference.”
Cuidando los Niños is one of the organizations that received support through the program.
“The Feeding Families Fund was designed as a win-win,” Hoehn said.
Not only does the fund provide food for families in need, but it also gives business to local restaurants — an industry that has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds are provided directly to the participating agencies, which then purchase meals for their clients from local eateries.
The program serves approximately 1,326 meals a week, which feeds 104 children and 314 adults.
The nonprofit Casa Esperanza has also received support through the Feeding Families Fund. Casa Esperanza provides a home away from home for families who must travel to Albuquerque for cancer treatment and other serious medical care.
"I send out so much gratitude to the people who donate to help others in the community during this time."
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Casa Esperanza had a robust dinner program in which volunteers prepared meals for patients. Much of the program activities had to be suspended amid the pandemic, leaving a gap in meal services. Thanks to the Feeding Families Fund, Casa Esperanza has been able to continue providing daily meals for the patients staying at the 28-room facility.
Casa Esperanza Executive Director Chrisann Gray spoke about some of the challenges that the patients are facing. In many cases, they must travel long distances for medical care; they’re far away from their homes and living on a limited income. They’re concerned about treatment and worried about surviving. On top of everything, they’re immunocompromised during a global pandemic. Having access to comfortable and safe lodging, support services and meals helps ease some of those worries.
For Casa Esperanza, being able to provide restaurant meals “has been wonderful for our families during this time,” Gray said. The food helps nourish those who are facing cancer, kidney disease or high-risk pregnancy.
“I send out so much gratitude to the people who donate to help others in the community during this time,” Gray said. “The Feeding Families Fund is such a great idea to sustain nonprofits and restaurants. It’s a win-win for all of us in the community.”
Cuidando los Niños and Casa Esperanza have purchased meals from a variety of local restaurants — Bistronomy B2B, Dion’s, El Patron, Garcia’s Kitchen, and Swiss Alps Bakery, to name only a few.
“They’ve all been tremendous,” Hoehn said of the restaurants that Cuidando los Niños has worked with, adding that the program has helped build an increased sense of community during a challenging time. El Patron held a fundraiser on Cinco de Mayo, raising $8,000 for Cuidando los Niños.
Other agencies that have benefited from the Feeding Families Fund include All Faiths Children’s Advocacy Center, Endorphin Power Company, Haven House, Ronald McDonald House, and St. Teresa of Calcutta Soup Kitchen.
A second phase of the Feeding Families Fund, which started on June 16, added five additional agencies: Bethel Community Storehouse, CNM Tres Manos, Crossroads for Women, Good Shepard Center, and PB & J Family Services. These five additional agencies purchase 345 meals each week to feed 232 adults and 69 children.
The twelve total agencies will be funded through August 3, 2020. Overall, donors gave $236,540, which provided more than 20,460 meals during the 15-week program.
“Beyond the food, the families feel supported,” Hoehn said. “They feel they’re not forgotten in this pandemic. They know that there are people in the community who are there to support them.”