ECHO Food Bank: 505-326-3770, www.echoinc.org

Daily Bread Soup Kitchen: 505-327-0956

Frontline Mission: 505-564-3740

Oasis Ministries: 505-325-1757

Salvation Army: 505-327-5117

NM Department of Human Services - SNAP, TANF: 101 W. Animas St., www.hsd.state.nm.us/isd/apply.html

WIC (Women, Infants, Children) Supplemental Food Program: 742 W. Animas St., 505-327-6263

Catholic Charity: 119 W. Broadway, 505-325-3734

Aztec Community Garden:
505–947-2542, www.sustainablesanjuan.com


FARMINGTON — Just behind two new multi-million dollar buildings that house the San Juan County Public Health Office and the San Juan County District Attorney's offices is a fossil of an old warehouse, willfully standing a half-century beyond its expiration date.

A plain box structure at the corner of Commercial Avenue and Elm Street, it announces itself humbly with sun bleached, peeling letters over its front doors that read ECHO Food Bank.

But inside, people are in constant motion around counters and towering stocked shelves, making it clear that the food bank is no ghost town.

And if the more than 2,000 people walking through its doors each month are any indication, San Juan County is having a hard time feeding itself.

"I know plenty of people who rely on ECHO -- single parents with five children, the elderly, my neighbors," said Rhonda Benally, an ECHO volunteer. "Despite what people may think, the third world isn't just outside America's borders. It's right here in our own backyard. If it's not obvious to people by now it should be."

Benally lives 30 miles west of Farmington, on the Navajo Nation, beyond paved streets, among her chronically impoverished neighbors, many without running water or electricity, to whom she delivers food each month from ECHO.

"ECHO is a place of giving and helping people who need it the most in the community," Benally said. "Everyone here knows there's no 'I' involved in this. It's a true partnership. It's everyone lending a hand."

About 17 percent of San Juan County residents live below the poverty level, according to a January 2010 American Community Survey.

Of that, more than 25 percent are children and 20 percent are adults 65 and older.

ECHO Executive Director Sara Kaynor has worked at ECHO for two decades. She sees more working poor come through the door each month, brought in usually by job loss, underemployment or illness to apply for one or more of the non-profit's seven assistance programs.

Further exacerbating the need are funding cuts that challenge her agency to do more with less.

"We're definitely seeing budget cuts. Sequestration cuts have hit us hard," Kaynor said. "Like everyone, we are constantly trying to replace funding with grant money, holding fundraisers, taking a sharper look at any expenses we can cut. In that sense, we're just like everybody."

Augusta Liddic   The Daily Times
Augusta Liddic The Daily Times (Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times)

All of the food bank's programs have been slashed by 25 percent, Kaynor said.

But it isn't just sequestration, which may or may not continue next year.

"The government is looking at cutting all kinds of things. The House (of Representatives) recently cut food and nutrition out of the Farm Bill," Kaynor said. "And the House wants to cut SNAP (food stamps) dramatically, which really is the main lifeline for food for low-income individuals. It's wrong they attack our most vulnerable people while maintaining subsidies for agribusiness."

On Tuesday, Victoria Cain, a full-time student at San Juan College, came through ECHO's doors for a box of food, part of the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which is responsible for 350,000 pounds of food supplied in the county last year.

Augusta Liddic   The Daily Times
Augusta Liddic The Daily Times (Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times)

"I've been here before, but things just got so bad lately, I needed the supplies," Cain said, while picking green beans and yellow squash from a bin. "People think it's only street bums and drunks who come here, but they're flat wrong. It's the working poor. Think about it. How do you survive if you only earn minimum wage? How do you raise a family on that?"

With three grown children out of the house, Cain has finally returned to school to pursue an education degree and become a middle school teacher.

"I want to have a career that matters, that gives back," she said. "A lot of people here also return the gift by turning right around as soon as they can to donate right back. In this economy, we need to be looking out for each other."

Hit hardest are children and seniors, who agencies across the county struggle to assist.

Like Cain, Elsie McKinley, came to ECHO for an emergency supply of food on Tuesday.

"It means a lot, especially since I live on very little," McKinley said. "Social Security is not nearly enough to make ends meet each month."

Stories like Cain's and McKinley's are all too familiar to Vicki Metheny, ECHO's food programs director.

"We see it more and more," Metheny said. "It's a trickle down crisis from our local economy being so oil, gas and power-dependent. We need jobs."

Client families Metheny works with at ECHO report moving into a single-family homes or apartments with other families to try to make ends meet, but one crisis like a lost job or a car's transmission going out can wreak havoc on the stability of the family staying together -- or eating regularly.

When Prudence Brady was laid off from her architecture job in Los Angeles, she decided to return to her hometown of Farmington and reconnect with family.

Brady soon found herself at ECHO -- not for help, but to help.

Each week, Brady pedals her bike to lend a hand two days a week, often collecting items like jars of peanut butter and cartons of juice for the agency's backpack program or in shopping bags for emergency-food clients.

"What I do know is that low-income elderly and young children are hit the hardest," Brady said. "The need is here, so that's why I'm here."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.