Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Panelists: Nutritious Food Out of Reach for Low-Income Families in Northern New Mexico

Northern New Mexico is comprised of isolated mountain and rural communities, Navajo and Pueblo Indian reservations, small towns, medium-sized cities and the state's fourth-largest city, which also happens to be the state capital.  Hunger is prevalent in one form or another in each of these populated areas. And each of  these populations has its own challenges as well as the common struggle of ensuring access to fruits, vegetables and other nutritious items.
The topic of hunger in Santa Fe and northern New Mexico was the topic of the community conversation sponsored by Christus St. Vincent Hospital at the Jean Cocteau Theater in Santa Fe on Saturday, March 21.The panel was  led by Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, who was joined by Sherry Hooper (The Food Depot), Jenny Ramo (Appleseed New Mexico) and Dr. Luis Rigales (Family Medicine Center, Christus St. Vincent). A concern common to all communities in northern New Mexico was the lack of access to inexpensive nutritious food for a relatively large segment of the population, especially working families, children, seniors and residents of Pueblo and Navajo reservations.

Mayor Gonzales said 15% of people in Santa Fe are hungry every night, and 25% of the children who reside in the capital city are food insecure.  (See video with comments from Mayor Gonzales)

Sherry Hooper
Healthy Food is Expensive
There many factors that keep residents of northern New Mexico from acquiring healthy food , particularly the high cost of  fruits and vegetables relative to snack food. A major challenge is to ensure that food pantries and other providers have enough of the healthy options available. The problem is that pantries don't  have enough storage capacity even to store other donated food. "Our partner agencies don't have the storage capacity," said Sherry Hooper, director of  The Food Depot, who noted that one the major projects of  her Santa Fe-based food bank is to help agencies expand storage capabilities.

Access to healthy food is important for vulnerable populations, including children. "We seek levels of food insecurity higher [in northern New Mexico] in families with children," said Dr. Rigales.  "It is also very prevalent in Hispanic families."

Mayor Javier Gonzales
Jenny Ramo, whose organization spearheaded the introduction of  the Breakfast After the Bell program in New Mexico, says the program has limited reach. At present, only the schools in which 85% or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to provide a free breakfast to all students after the start of the instructional day. Ramo thinks the program should be expanded. "If you look at schools with a 70% rate of poverty--that is still a lot of poverty.

Hunger is also a problem for seniors, many of whom must avoid certain foods to stay healthy. Many seniors suffer from hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and other diseases and require food  that is low in fat and high in nutrition. Those same seniors are on fixed incomes, and nutritious food is expensive.  

According to Dr. Rigales, the medical profession can be part of the solution. That's why he teaches residents not only to think in terms of medical treatments, but to take a more holistic approach, including how to increase access to nutritious food for patients. This could include promotion of community gardens and other sources of fruits and vegetables..

Jenny Ramo and Dr. Luis Rigales
The lack of access to technology is an issue in the Navajo Nation, where more than three-quarters of residents have experienced some level of food insecurity. While many of these residents are eligible for government assistance, applications must be filed online.

The USDA recently awarded a  US$2.4 grant to the Navajo Nation to to start a two-year Food Access Navigator pilot project. The project will address food gaps and improve local economies in four or five chapters in the Eastern Navajo, Fort Defiance, and Shiprock agencies on the Navajo Nation. One problem: there is no internet access in the remote areas where many of these residents live.  According to Ramo, Appleseed is working with Navajo communities to improve connectivity.

Questions and Issues
Food activist Mark Winne
Pam Roy, Farm to Table

A number of experts attended the community discussion, including author and food activist Mark Winne and his wife Pam Roy, executive director of Farm to Table and coordinator of the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council. Representatives of Kitchen Angels were also present.

Several interesting issues were raised during the question-and-answer session and during the presentations. Here are a few of those issues.

Why is  New Mexico Still at the Bottom?  The problem of hunger and poverty in New Mexico has been on our radar for several decades. There was renewed attention when Feeding America released statistics in 2013 indicating that our state ranked first in child hunger and second in overall food insecurity. Why haven't we been able to take action to reduce the number of poor and hungry people in our state? How do we create enough employment opportunities for our population and at the same time ensure that those are good paying jobs? Are we doing everything we can to ensure that the most vulnerable populations in our state have access to food? How do we best take advantage of our assets (our small and medium-sized farmers) to benefit our state residents? How do we emulate successful programs like the Agri Cultura Network in Albuquerque's South Valley in other parts of the state?  How do we make ending hunger a priority rather than an afterthought in our public policy?

Food Insecurity vs. Hunger There was also the issue of terminology. We've come to know hunger as food insecurity, partly because this helps the federal government (primarily the USDA) keep track of statistics. The term, which was coined in 2006, describes a condition when "consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” A couple of panelists, Jenny Ramo and Sherry Hooper, suggested that the term is too bureaucratic and does not truly describe what families are facing. "I do not like term food insecurity. That is a sterile term," said Ramo. Incidentally, participants at the Bread for the World Offering of Letters workshop in Albuquerque said the same thing. "Let us pledge to use the word hunger instead of food insecurity," one participant said, in reference to our campaign this year urging Congress to renew Child Nutriton programs. 

1 comment:

Michelle Meaders said...

In light of all this, will the Governor still institute cutting food stamps for people who can't find jobs? She tried this late last year, but was stopped because she didn't provide enough notification. She said she would try again this year. Is there a campaign to encourage her not to?