Friday, November 18, 2005
New Mexico Must Take Another Bite Out of Hunger
Santa Fe Freelance Writer
Two years ago, Gov. Bill Richardson took a step that was nearly unprecedented in the United States. He acknowledged that New Mexico had one of the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the country, and that it was finally time to do something about it.
To that end he convened The Governor's Hunger Summit, which was attended by 300 government officials and community leaders. Out of that came a statewide commitment to significantly reduce hunger in New Mexico.
Whether it's marriage or ending hunger, a commitment is something to take seriously. And in the case of hunger, when the commitment determines which children will thrive and which children will fall forever behind, it's important to take stock of how well we are doing. I say "we" because the responsibility to end hunger in New Mexico does not only belong to our elected officials and public agencies. As human beings and citizens of this state, hunger is a problem we all own.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released last month, 15.8 percent of the state's residents (about 300,000 people) were forced to skip meals, not eat so their children could, or simply worry about where their next meal would come from.
This gives New Mexico the second worst hunger and food security rate in the country. If for just one moment we could put ourselves in the shoes of someone in these circumstances— say choosing between heating and eating— then we'd know why it was necessary to fix the problem.
It wasn't that our public agencies and private charities were failing; it was that the low level of financial resources and limited coordination between service providers were no match for New Mexico's entrenched poverty, the true cause of hunger and food insecurity.
While not intractable, poverty is a tough beast to subdue. Fortunately, the same is not true for hunger. With an adequate commitment of public and private resources and an effective collaboration between food banks, government agencies, farmers, the private food industry and faith-based institutions, no New Mexican should ever go to bed hungry.
The positive news is that we have started to make good on our commitment. Through more staff, the N.M. Human Services Department (HSD) has increased the number of food stamp program participants from 55 percent to 70 percent of those families who are eligible. An innovative outreach partnership between the New Mexico Association of Food Banks and HSD is also increasing the number of hungry state residents now benefiting from America's most important anti-hunger program.
And the Legislature in its 2005 session took a bite out of childhood hunger by providing funds that will help all children in New Mexico's poorest school districts start the day with a healthy breakfast.
New state funds have also created a hunger coordinator position. The good thing about coordination and cooperation is that they generate a high return for a modest investment. Formerly empty state government trucks, for instance, are now being used when not otherwise in service to haul food for food banks.
Other legislative actions like the elimination of New Mexico's gross receipts tax on food and the creation of healthy food standards in the state's public schools are also good anti-hunger policy.
Yes, New Mexico appears to be on the right track. But as the poet Langston Hughes once said, the people are "hungry, hungry yet today, despite the dream."
The same Legislature that directed more state resources to poor school districts failed to increase the minimum food stamp benefit from $10 to $35 per month, an injustice that hits the elderly particularly hard. Soaring gasoline prices are cutting like a knife through the state's emergency food banking system where a truckload of food now costs $3,000 to $4,000 to ship compared to half that amount a year ago. And even after Hurricane Katrina supposedly led Americans to re-discover poverty, the U.S. Congress is considering a $600 million cut in food stamps.
To keep faith with our commitment to reduce hunger in New Mexico— the fulfillment of which means a fair chance in life for every child and a dignified life for every adult— we must continue to expand the availability of public resources and the creative collaborations that have characterized our work so far. To do any less only preserves an unacceptable, and unjust, status quo.
Mark Winne is a member of the New Mexico Task Force to End Hunger. The U.S. Department of Agriculture study on Household Food Security study can be read at www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/err11/.
Published in the Albuquerque Journal Editorial Page, November 18, 2005
Reprinted with permission from author
The above photo borrowed from the Call to Renewal website.