The cafeteria inside of the Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center is bright, airy and colorful. The afternoon summer sun shines through the enormous windows that look out onto a mostly empty courtyard as savory smells drift out of the hospital cafeteria.
Vanessa Salazar and her three children (Octavia, 15; Reina, 11; and Lucas, 9) walk into the room together after boxing practice—and they're hungry.
They are here for the free meals program for children that began last month. The Southside hospital is joining five other Presbyterian hospitals that already provide free meals for kids both during the school year and throughout the summer in an effort to combat one of New Mexico's pressing social problems: child hunger. New Mexico leads the nation in child hunger rates, with one of every four children at risk of childhood hunger and food insecurity.
The Santa Fe site has served a total of 177 meals since June 3, with an average of 32 meals per week. In the first week of July, that number shot up to 51 meals served to children, according to Presbyterian Healthcare Services.
Salazar and her children wait patiently as the hospital employees serve three plates of food without asking questions.
The mother is a true local, born and raised on the far Southside of Santa Fe. She says her family has been in New Mexico for at least the last seven generations.
As she sits across the table from her three children in the cafeteria, watching as they eat from plates of rice and meat, Salazar explains that, like many other Southside families, she brings her family here two to three times a week in order to easily and quickly access a healthy meal, "versus Taco Bell or McDonald's."
Salazar believes that the Southside needs another grocery store because "it's very hard" for people in that part of the city, particularly those without cars, to access healthy food and produce. There's a bus that runs past her house to take people closer into town, but she says she rarely sees riders on it, and they sometimes have to take two routes to actually reach a grocery store or someplace that serves healthy and fresh meals that are ready to go for young families with busy schedules—which makes up a majority of the Southside.
Santa Fe's City Council Districts 3 and 4 are inundated with McDonald's, Taco Bell, Subway, Blake's Lotaburger, Five Guys and Jimmy John's, just to name a few. That's not including convenience stores that line, in particular, Airport and Cerrillos roads.
The Christus St. Vincent 2017–2019 Community Health Needs Assessment found a large increase in youth obesity in Santa Fe County between 2011 and 2013. There was a 2.9% jump in just two years to 12.3% youth obesity. If the growth continues to increase at this pace, local youth will quickly exceed both state and national rates of childhood obesity. According to the report, youth advocates believe the data actually underreports actual rates of obesity in adolescents by 20% to 30%.
One of the main culprits in youth obesity? Excessive access to unhealthy and "fast" foods.
Salazar says that she enjoys making food at home, and as her kids finish the food on their plates, they chime in that they love their mom's cooking.
But not every household has an adult at home to cook regular meals. The Airport Road area of Santa Fe has one of the highest rates of people living in poverty and poor health, and the highest number of children on free and reduced lunch in the entire county.
According to the Community Health Needs Assessment, 22.9% of people in the Airport Road area earn less that the poverty level—that's over 4,000 people.
Without a large anchor grocery store on the far Southside or reasonable transportation, people are seeking food within walking distance or spend several hours getting groceries from Walmart.
The Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center is serving a small but growing group of Southsiders as more people learn about the program for kids. On a Wednesday afternoon at lunchtime, there are scattered families with children in the sunny dining room and the place hums with voices and cutlery against plates.
Salazar says she will continue to try and spread the word about the free meals program on social media.
"There was one day last week we came … and it was jam packed in here. There was tons of kids," Salazar says. "It was a weekday. We don't even come on the weekends. It's too busy."
Since the statewide program began in 2016, Presbyterian says it has served more than 42,471 meals to children at Presbyterian hospitals around the state as a part of Presbyterian's partnership with the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service Southwest Region and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.
In addition to the free meal program, Presbyterian offers a Food Farmacy that provides free food for select patients, the Healthy Here Mobile Farmers Market and a Fresh RX program that provides "prescriptions" for produce.
Free meals for children at Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center location (4801 Beckner Road, 772-1234) are available from 9 am to 2:30 pm.