Food for Thought

Lujan Grisham administration hopes investments in agriculture infrastructure and farm programs can get ahead of New Mexico’s aching issue of food insecurity

It’s as simple as dignity, says Juliana Ciano, program director of Reunity Resources in Santa Fe.

“People want the dignity of choosing the food that they like, the food that they want when they want it,” she tells SFR.

The success of food programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Double Up Food Bucks, Ciano explains, stems from the power of choice and the increased volume of fresh produce families can afford.

While Santa Feans redeemed over $5,000 in produce using Double Up Food Bucks from Reunity Resources’ farm last year, Ciano says this amount represents just a fraction of the need across the state.

Data from the 2021 New Mexico Kids Count, an annual publication from the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, shows that children in the state continue to face food insecurity that these programs aim to eliminate; experts say the pandemic has heightened the hunger crisis.

An initiative from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham calls for major investments in farm and hunger relief programs to lay the groundwork for a better food future for New Mexico.

According to the most recent data book, 16% of New Mexican households received food assistance prior to the pandemic, with families of color participating in SNAP at higher rates than white, non-Hispanic families.

While the number of households receiving SNAP benefits provides one view of the state’s need to address hunger, Emily Wildau, a research and policy analyst with Voices for Children, says it’s important to “look at poverty, unemployment, homeownership, and…a cost of food index,” to understand how hunger affects youths in the state. These factors, Wildau says, outline the parameters of those experiencing “food insecurity.”

In 2020, the data book reports, a quarter of children remained food insecure, lacking access to adequate, healthy food, with significant disparities across New Mexico. While 23% of Santa Fe kids experience food insecurity, 37% of McKinley County children are limited in their access to healthy, reliable meals.

“New Mexico has always struggled with food insecurity because of the challenges that we face as a mostly rural…and high poverty state,” says Kendal Chavez, food and hunger coordinator with the governor’s office.

For the Food, Farm and Hunger Initiative, the governor’s team is requesting $24 million, all of which is recurring apart from a $10 million request for capital outlay improvements and a one-time, $500,000 investment to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

The recommendation for a cash injection into New Mexico’s agriculture industry and food systems represents the beginning of a five-year strategic plan, Chavez explains, to wrestle New Mexico from the top of the list of the hungriest states in the nation.

The range of programs outlined in the initiative includes $700,000 for additional funding for Double Up Food Bucks, which allows SNAP dollars to count twice at farmers markets, and $10 million in capital outlay dollars for food infrastructure improvements.

“None of [the programs] are radical in the sense that we don’t know if they’re going to impact New Mexican families and our food system,” Chavez tells SFR.

Chavez notes that a budget recommendation from the Legislative Finance Committee doesn’t include any appropriation for the governor’s initiative, but she hopes the Legislature will provide support in the coming weeks while hammering out the state’s finances. LFC acknowledges the negative impact the pandemic has on food security, recommending $5 million in non-recurring funds for food banks across the state to address hunger.

Last year, beneficiaries of the food assistance program who shopped at the Santa Fe Farmers Market redeemed over $180,000. This continues a trend first observed when the pandemic hit New Mexico, says Andrea Fisher Maril, executive director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute.

“In 2020, the SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks program grew by 97%, with 70% new users,” Fisher Maril tells SFR.

She points to the benefits for farmers and the local economy.

“The fact that they’re selling more through SNAP and Double Up right now means that they have more income,” Fisher Maril says.

David Sundberg, a program director with the farmers market institute, says investments in agriculture—such as the New Mexico Grown initiative, which connects community centers with locally produced products—are essential to rebuilding the integrity of New Mexico’s food systems.

These programs, which are part of the governor’s initiative, allow state-supported food systems including schools and senior centers “to be able to go directly to the farmers, basically, and say ‘I’d love to have your potatoes, I’d love to have your beans, I’d love to have your lettuce on my plate,’” Sundberg tells SFR.

Additionally, legislators have taken up the issue to get healthy food onto New Mexicans’ plates.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, has put forward five bills to address food insecurity. She sees her own legislative efforts as complementary tools to the executive recommendations.

“We are supporting the governor’s hunger initiative and we are also coming up with proposals to fund other gaps,” Stefanics tells SFR.

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