HARDING COUNTY, N.M. (KRQE) –Harding County is known as a food desert; those who live there tell News 13 that there are no grocery stores in the county. “We do not have a grocery store. We are up in the corner of New Mexico. There is Clayton, Tucumcari, Las Vegas, Raton, and a little in Springer New Mexico,” said Virginia Smith, senior program coordinator for Harding County, “It takes an hour and 45 minutes to get there, to do your shopping and an hour and a half, to an hour and 45 minutes to get back.”

Republican Representative Jack Chatfield (R-Mosquero) worked to get a state-funded pilot program to help senior citizens their groceries delivered, but it was set to end this month—potentially leaving dozens of senior citizens without reliable access to food.

“It’s an hour drive, 100 miles, so more like two hours really, drive to the nearest grocery store,” Chatfield said, “And that’s okay if you’re me or a lot of other folks; but if you’re a senior citizen or if you’re disabled or if you have some problem like that, it’s a problem to just get simple things that you and I take for granted.”

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Smith said this is a burden to many of the senior citizens in the extremely rural area: “Some of these seniors don’t drive. They don’t drive, period. They don’t even have a driver’s license.” So, Chatfield worked with the state’s Department of Aging and Long-Term Services (ALTSD) to create a pilot program to let these folks order their groceries and have them delivered.

“This service picks them up at the grocery store, brings them down, and then distributes them to the folks that are there and that makes them able to stay in their home,” Chatfield said. The program started in March; Smith said 55 people enrolled.

“They came to me and told me about this pilot project and I just said, you know, if it works please don’t take it away. That’s exactly what happened.”

Smith said she got a call from someone at ALTSD last week stating the program was ending. “Our little population, when you have 55 people enrolled in a program and they’re bringing them their food and now they’re going to cut it off, my concern is how are these people going to eat now?”

News 13 reached out to ALTSD. In a series of statements, they told us the program was set to end this month and was paused due to food safety.

“The grocery delivery program in Harding County is a pilot program designed to address food deserts in the region. The pilot, which ran from March 2023 until September 2023, has been paused due to food safety concerns. Seniors were potentially being put at risk with improperly stored food items. The Aging and Long-Term Services Department is prioritizing food insecurity in rural communities while keeping New Mexico seniors safe. We’re looking forward to continuing conversations about revising the pilot program model to better serve the region’s needs.”

Joey Long, PhD, Aging and Long-Term Services Department

However, Ferdinand Garcia—the CEO of Golden Spread, the non-profit that has been delivering the groceries—told News 13 that they never heard anything from the state about any food safety concerns or problems, and have continued service.

Despite that, the pilot program has been scheduled to conclude at the end of September. The question became: what will happen to the seniors who have been relying on this service? “I think it’s just absurd, you know, why would you do that? Why would you bring in something like that, and it works, and then say no more,” Smith wondered.

“Whatever the cost for that program is, it’s extremely less expensive than that person having to move to Albuquerque where they have no home, no friends, no family. And so, it’s less expensive to help them stay in their home than it is for them to be forced out of their home and then it’s also a lot more kind,” Chatfield said.

The representative said he will continue to fight to keep the program: “That’s all we’re trying to do is to keep some of these older folks in their homes to meet their needs and give them some dignity in their final years.”

The secretary of the ALTSD traveled to Roy, New Mexico, Friday to hear people’s concerns on how to improve the program and possibly expand it to other communities. Smith told News 13 that the department decided to ’emergency extend’ the current program through the end of the year. To date, they’ve spent more than $70,000 dollars on the program.

“ALTSD is committed to developing innovative solutions to meet the diverse needs of New Mexico’s seniors. This includes addressing food deserts, which is why the Roy, NM grocery delivery service pilot program was initiated. Meeting with the regional stakeholders in Roy, NM today is a critical step to improve the pilot program model, which will not only support the seniors of Roy, NM but it will also inform the agency on how this pilot program can potentially serve additional communities in need. To date, $73,724.26 has been expended on the Roy, NM grocery service pilot program.”

Joey Long, PhD, Aging and Long-Term Services Department