Sunday, July 20, 2014

End Hunger in New Mexico Summit a Great Success. Now What?

During his keynote address on the first day of the End Hunger in New Mexico summit, Mark Winne mentioned a previous effort in 2003 to address hunger in our state. At that time, New Mexico  was among the states with the highest rate of hunger/food insecurity. What did that effort a decade ago accomplish? Our ranking and statistics did not improve, and in fact they worsened. In 2002, 14% fo the state's population suffered poverty, and that rate rose to 15% in 2012.

There are mixed results from the last effort. A task force that was created to follow up on the 2003 conference managed to keep behind-the-scenes work alive for some time--and even issued a report that was circulated widely.  Then after several years, the task for ceased to exist (and as Winne would tell you, "ask a dozen people, and you'll get a dozen different responses."

Another thought from 2003. The statistics do tell a story of our progress or (lack of progress).  There were many factors beyond or control, especially the last few years--when a major recession and the mortgage crisis that began in 2008 and has never fully ended,  hammered New Mexico.

So let's measure progress in other ways besides the statistics. As Winne pointed out, that 2003 conference  spawned intense efforts  in areas that hadn't been addressed before, including improvements in the nutritional levels of school meals and direct efforts to connect farming communities with various government feeding efforts.

AARP Foundation Campaign
A relevant, timely conversation
So what about this year's summit and it's follow up? First, let me say that the conference was a great success in making the conversation about hunger relevant and bringing together many stakeholders, although I do think the number of participants could have been broadened a little more. So kudos to the organizers: The North Central New Mexico Economic Development District, the Non Metro Area Agency on Aging, and the New Mexico Aging & Long-Term Services Department.

While the summit succeeded in bringing together those individuals, agencies and organizations who care--we have long ways to educate the public at large--which would mean greater media efforts. But this could come with the follow up

As one of the persons who participated in thatt he first summit and who has been involved in efforts to end hunger in New Mexico (and in our country and overseas), I have some thoughts on how to move forward.

Before I do that,  let me acknowledge that there is the impetus for a follow-up.  People were asked to sign up to be part of the effort to move the process forward. And Gene Varela from AARP/AARP Foundation put together the "Take Action on Hunger in New Mexico Workshop Report," summarizing Issues and Challenges and Recommendations or Action Areas (Awareness & Education, Advocacy, Support for Existing Programs, Community Collaboration and Coordination). And there was a sign-up sheet for those who attended the summit to participate in crafting solutions to hunger in New Mexico.

So hopefully, those efforts will take root and create mechanisms to begin to address the problem.

Here's what I propose...
I myself propose a different and simpler approach. My thoughts came in response to a question from summit participant Ari Herring from United Way during an informal conversation outside of the Isleta Conference Center after the summit had ended.  My response was insticntive--and not the result of sitting down and giving the matter deep thought. However, I think there is something to instincts when one has been involved in any effort for a long time.

I told Ari was that our response must start with a sense of focus. The document that Gene Varela handed out was filled with proposals and valuabe input from the various participants at workshops and during plenary sessions.  All of that is a good starting point. The question is how  we make the best use of those resources and expertise.

Commemorative Pot
There are various ways in which hunger and poverty affect New Mexicans, and we must take this into account into our solutions. There isn't a one-size fits all approach, so let's examine the various how hunger affects different New Mexican populations and respond accordingly.

Most of the public officials (including Gov. Susana Martinez and all of our congressional representatives) who spoke at the plenary sessions, mentioned two populations in particular: children and seniors. 

There are three other populations that merit serious discussion, not only on immediate solutions but on sustainable long-term responses. For example, working families are hit hard by hunger, and a solution would be to address the issue of low wages in our state. My proposal would be to  form task forces to look at the problems and draft a set of steps to address hunger for each of these populations.
  • Children and Mothers
  • Seniors
  • Working Families
  • Rural Communities
  • Native American/Indian Communities
I admit there is the extreme likelihood of overlap. And yet, each of these populations merits its own study and set of solutions that will be part of the overall effort to address hunger in New Mexico.I think the unique (and common) problems in each of these communities are what is contributing to our poor rankings.

I also would like to bring in a suggestion that I made to conference moderator Myles Copeland in an earlier informal post-summit conversation. Just so we can build on what was discussed in the 2003 conference, it would be useful to bring in individuals and organizations that participated then. The one natural ally should the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council (which would include Mark Winne and Pam Roy).

A final word about those rankings. As a person who also looks at the national picture, I don't think we should be measuring our progress in relation to where we stand against other states, but more in regards of where we have been and how we have improved since that time.

A word from two speakers
At this point, I think it would be useful to share a couple of quotes from presenters at this year's summit, Ellen Teller from the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Terry Brunner, USDA's Director of Rural Development for New Mexico.

Ellen Teller, FRAC
On Income Disparity: Hunger is a symptom of poverty..Income of the bottom fifth of the population was about 2% lower in 2012 than it was in 1973.The wages and income of the top fifth grew by 46% That shows you how lopsided [income levels have evolved'

On Advocacy: We have to continue to educate our elected officials at all levels of government what the problem is in your back yard...The best way to educate your member of Congress is to invite them to come to your agency.  This is the most relaxed way to communicate with an elected official."

Terry Brunner, USDA
Ladders of Opportunity: This is a concept that we've been working on for the last two years.We want to make sure that if you [live in a town growing up in America, (and I often growing up in rural America) regardless of your race, regardless of  whether you grew up poor or grew up hungry or whether a small town in the middle of nowhere, you should have the same opportunities as everyone else to succeed.  We're working with communities across the nation to make sure those ladders of opportunity exist...When you grow up in a small town you should have access to food, access to health insurance, access to jobs, or education... You can climb that ladder to reach success. That's something that we're aiming for.

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