Local volunteers receive recognition for feeding families in county

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It seems like such a simple thing — if you’re hungry, you go to the fridge and pull out a snack, open a cupboard and find ingredients for a meal.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Recognizing that they bring a tremendous amount of good to the community, the founders of Move That Food, Cyndi Sluder and Louis Lusero, were honored by the New Mexico Aging and Long Term Services Department earlier this fall. They received the department’s Public Service Award.

But for many in Valencia County, that’s not the case.

Since 2009, two county residents and a small army of dedicated volunteers, businesses and community leaders have been working tirelessly to change that.

Recognizing that they bring a tremendous amount of good to the community, the founders of Move That Food, Luis Lusero and Cyndi Sluder, were honored by the New Mexico Aging and Long Term Services Department earlier this fall.

The organization was presented with the Public Service Award, which “honors an organization or business that has made unique and lasting contributions that benefit the aging population in New Mexico.”

In nearly four years, working in partnership with the Roadrunner Food Bank’s mobile pantries, Move That Food has held 40 food distributions at 17 sites across Valencia County, paid for by $4,000-plus in donations.

Given the average family size of 4.2, that totals to about 17,000 people fed, Lusero said.

“The amount of food is enough to feed a community the size of Los Lunas for one week,” Lusero said. “And 55 percent of those are seniors.”

Finding and organizing the food distribution locations was something Lusero decided to do after seeing a story on the evening news. A man was going door to door in a Rio Rancho neighborhood, trying to sell his shoes.

“He was trying to buy food for his family,” Lusero said. “Some others in the neighborhood had heard of the Roadrunner Food Bank, so they called them. Through my work at the schools, I had begun to hear that there was a need for food for families.”

After the economic crash in 2008, Lusero heard the need loud and clear.

“We started one each quarter, then we went to one a month,” he said. “In February, we went to two times a month, and by June we were up to three.”

Lusero said right now, Move That Food is scheduled to do distributions with Roadrunner Food Bank at various locations throughout the county until May of 2013.

In January of 2010, Sluder joined Lusero’s efforts.

“She said if we’re going to do something on a continuing basis, we need a recognizable name,” he said.

Taking inspiration from the catch phrase of TV’s “Extreme Makeover” — “move that bus” — they decided on the name.

Lusero said Sluder’s involvement in the organization caused it to evolve into something different.

“Cyndi is dedicated in a different way,” he said.

To do a distribution through Roadrunner, the nonprofit needs $200 for food enough to feed 50 families.

“I knew I could raise the $200,” Lusero said. “Could I raise $400?”

Sluder said for Lusero, the challenge and excitement is about hitting his goal.

“I hate asking for money,” Sluder said. “I’m called (to do this.) God said very clearly, feed the hungry people. I am blessed to have Lou and the people I met at the Belen (Area) Food Pantry.

“I know we are providing hope. It’s not about me or Lou. There is a huge need and we are filling a small part.”

Lusero might sound flippant about his role in the endeavor, but when he talks about the people he has met during the distributions, and tears come to his eyes, you know it’s about more than hitting a dollar amount.

“We were out in Meadow Lake and there was a young woman with three small children,” Lusero said. “They had no food in the house and said a prayer that morning, ‘God, what are we going to do after today?’”

Coming home from work, she saw the distribution and stopped.

“This affirms people’s faith. If we can get one family through one more week. What I see in somebody’s eyes, I understand,” Lusero pauses, choked and teary eyed. “I make Cyndi talk to them so I don’t fall apart. I’m always good for a smart-ass answer.”

As the distributions became more frequent and the numbers higher, Lusero said they thought about forming a nonprofit and filing for 501c3 status.

“We could probably get more donations, but with the $700 you need to file, we could buy more food,” he said with a laugh.

Instead, any monetary donations to Move That Food goes through Roadrunner Food Bank, an Albuquerque 501c3.

“Any money goes to them, checks are made out to Roadrunner,” Lusero said. “They hold it in an account just for us, for Valencia County, so anyone who donates, the money comes right back here.”

To keep things on the up-and-up, Roadrunner does regular audits of the paperwork Move That Food Must keep for every distribution, and any expenses for things such as gas, letterhead or business cards comes out of Lusero and Sluder’s pockets. Donors receive a letter from Roadrunner for tax purposes, he said.

If 50 people donated $10 a month, Lusero said that would feed about 450 families.

“It comes out to about six cents a pound. We can do distributions three times a month for about $900,” he said.

Even with donations, Lusero said he and Sluder absorb about 60 percent of the cost for the food.

Annually, he estimates they collect about $10,800.

“When you consider the number of people we can feed with that, we can feed a lot of people,” Lusero said. “It’s really cheap, but the food is not cheap.”

On occasion, the distributions have a selection of meat, he said. One time there was a choice of chicken, roast or ham.

A man and woman seemed rather overwhelmed by having a choice, Lusero said. The woman confessed they hadn’t eaten meat in three years because they just couldn’t afford it.

Sluder said Roadrunner would like to do more to increase their numbers in Valencia County, even though they are getting to about 300 families a month.

So in December, Move That Food is taking on its biggest challenge — to feed 400 families right before Christmas. That will push the cumulative total up to a quarter million people fed in Valencia County.

Because the purpose of Roadrunner’s mobile pantries is to feed families in a specific geographical area, the location of the distribution isn’t announced until shortly before it happens. Fliers are put up in the area of the distribution a few days before and given to any schools in the area to send home with students.

“We move from community to community. We don’t ask people to come all the way from Highland Meadows — we go there,” Lusero said.

Now that Move That Food has gained some name recognition and a following, Lusero said people have a kind of expectation of the organization. And there is a willing cadre of volunteers to go along with that expectation.

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the more than 400 volunteers who, over the last three-and-a half years, have given their time to help unload and hand out the food at schools fire departments, senior centers and churches across the county,” Lusero said.

“I also want to give a special thanks to my wife, Barbara, and Janet Chavez who have done the registration every time,” he said. “They capture a lot of information and we owe them a big thank you.”

And Lusero said the biggest thanks of all goes to the schools, individuals, churches and businesses all over the county that have donated to the effort.

“I always say, the purpose of life is to matter — to count,” he said. “We as a community, as a nation, could do so much more. The satisfaction comes in the doing, the intertwining, interlacing of people.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.