Food pantry gets a new Belen home

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After searching for nearly three years, the Belen Area Food Pantry is slated to get a new home.

Belen city councilors unanimously approved a lease that will allow the food pantry to rent the old domestic violence shelter on Becker Avenue for 10 years at a cost of $1.50 per year, for a total of $15.

But before city officials and pantry board members sign the lease, city councilors asked that a hold harmless clause be added to protect taxpayers from liability issues and the program from unnecessary legal obstacles.

Food Pantry treasurer Laurie Duffy said she is pleased with the city councilors for working with the pantry to come up with the agreement and is excited to finally have a new location to distribute food to area residents.

"We are very excited about moving forward with the project to turn the domestic violence shelter into the Belen Area Food Pantry," Duffy said. "Our hopes is to have uninterrupted service and be open in that facility in early January."

Food pantry volunteers and city workers must complete a few minor repairs to get the building ready.

The city's road crew will have to grade the parking lot to keep rain water out of the building. On the food pantry's end, volunteers will replace carpet and some walls damaged by flooding.

City Manager Mary Lucy Baca said if she can get all the repairs made this week, the lease could be signed as early as the beginning of next week.

"I think it is wonderful for the community and I'm glad we can help," Baca said of agreement.

Since 2007, the pantry has used the First Baptist Church of Belen's common area as hub for the food assistance operation that hands out nearly 50,000 pounds of food to area residents each month.

But the church's growing and aging congregation is forcing the food bank to find a new place for its distribution center.

Dawn Vigil, Belen Area Food Pantry board member, described the association with the church as a good deal for the pantry.

"But we simply have outgrown the space," Vigil said. "It is like living with mom and dad for all of those years and it's time to move out."

Vigil said the pantry has been a place where qualifying Belen area families can go and receive up to a week's worth of uncooked food to help them get through rough times.

Nearly 60 percent of the pantry's household clients have an adult 62-years-old or older. Those families are eligible to receive food assistance each month, while other households every other month.

In past three years, the number of households seeking assistance from the food pantry doubled, from 300 to 600. Pantry officials said they anticipate that number will continue to grow once November's cuts to the federal food stamp program, known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, take root.

The report Duffy filed with the Road Runner Food Bank in November showed 678 families within the Belen school district received emergency food assistance from the pantry.

Vigil said the prospect of the new distribution center comes with apprehension as well as excitement because expenses will come with the move.

"We are going to have to pay utilities and insurance cost and all the money we spent in the past was to buy food," Vigil said. "We are going to have to hit up the community to help provide operating cost."

Duffy said besides giving the pantry a clean slate, the eventual move will provide an excellent opportunity to expand the services the organization provides to the community.

"We are looking at an amazing opportunity to perhaps expand our services," Duffy explained. "We have a blank slate on how we operate, when we operate and the services provided."

Duffy said she hopes to one day offer nutrition, budgeting and life-skills classes that would be benefit the community at large.

Recognizing the nonprofit's value to the community, Councilor Wayne Gallegos wanted to make sure all aspects of the lease agreement were achievable to ensure the program's success.

"It is a very good service for the community. It does a lot of good for a lot of people," Gallegos said. "Once it is established, it is going to take off."