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Hunger in New Mexico is for real

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Are we really hungry?

Our state’s human services secretary, Sidonie Squier, in a discussion by email, denied that New Mexico has a problem with hunger.

I quote: “There has never been and is not now any significant evidence of hunger in N.M.”

Outed by the news media, Squier quickly did an about-face, ascribing her comment to a poor choice of words. Squier either chose her words about as poorly as one could imagine (when I said “none” I, uh, actually meant “a lot”) or she got caught saying what she meant.A01_jd_10oct_Food-Insecurity-map

In her walk-back, Squier said, “I agree that there are hungry children in New Mexico, and none of them should go without access to food or be malnourished.”

On her second try, Squier got it right.

New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the nation. It has the poorest kids in the country, according to the U.S. Census. In other less-developed nations, civil wars, ethnic strife and famines contribute to hunger. In this country, poverty is the cause of people not having enough food to eat or not having enough nutritious food.

So it’s no surprise that New Mexico, the state with the highest percentage of children living in poverty, also is the state with the highest rate of child hunger. (Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, ranks our kids hungriest with 30.6 percent having “uncertain access to adequate food.”) Or that 66 percent of our kids in public school qualify on their family income for free and reduced-price lunch. (Also tops in the nation.) Or that 20 percent of New Mexicans are deemed “food insecure.” (Second-highest in the nation, according to Feeding America.)

Call it hunger or “food insecurity,” the current term of art, but it boils down to a deficit in an optimal amount of food and healthy food. The data on hunger in this country come from surveys in which people are asked, directly, about how they shop for food and eat in their households.

In the United States, hunger or “food insecurity” is defined as households in which the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

Here are a few of our lowlights, according to the New Mexico Association of Food Banks: 40,000 New Mexicans seek help from a free food pantry or food bank every week; among those 40,000, 54 percent said they must choose between paying for food and paying utility bills; 40 percent of those people are children under 18; and 13 percent are senior citizens. Their average monthly household income is $900.

At the time she said hunger didn’t exist here, Squier had been working on a draft report of the state’s Task Force to End Hunger – a project of her boss, Gov. Susana Martinez. She also is the head of the state agency tasked with serving the state’s neediest.

The department directs Medicaid and substance abuse and mental health programs, oversees child support orders and administers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF (the cash assistance program that replaced welfare), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (the new name for food stamps). The department also oversees food commodity distribution and helps people who receive SSI to get food assistance.

There are people who see those programs as handouts to the lazy, the scammers and the welfare queens, and some of those people would nod in agreement with Squier from their well-stocked kitchens and deny we have hungry people among us.

Squier’s comments stoked the predictable fires. “When I was in college, I ate fine on $25 a week.” “If New Mexicans are so hungry, why are they so fat?”

Jennifer Ramo, the executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Appleseed, has worked both sides of the aisle in pursuit of better outcomes for New Mexico’s children, and when I sat down with her to talk about hunger, she reminded me it is not a partisan issue and shouldn’t be a blame game.

Most notably, Appleseed proposed “Breakfast After the Bell” in 2011,which mandated that the poorest elementary schools give free nutritious breakfast to all students in the first few minutes of the school day. The bill sailed through the Legislature with bipartisan support and was signed by the governor.

On the strength of data that show increased attendance, fewer discipline referrals and fewer trips to the nurse’s office in schools with breakfast for all, Ramo will try to expand the program into middle schools and high schools. Price tag: $30 per student per year.

When I asked Ramo, who is also a member of the End Hunger task force, whether hunger is an issue in New Mexico, or whether it’s more accurate to say we have people who are “food insecure” or whether our problem is not with hunger but with nutrition deficits, she waved me off. “I don’t care what we call it,” she said.

Ramo said you can look at data or anecdotes to confirm there is a need here for programs like “Breakfast After the Bell.” In doubt about the reality of hunger in New Mexico? Ramo suggests looking at those poverty numbers and talking to school lunch ladies, who will tell you that on Monday kids crowd into the cafeteria early and on Friday they clamor for seconds.

“It is clearly a huge problem – people being able to access enough food and enough healthy food,” she said.

Ramo also believes there’s no percentage in arguing about whether parents should do a better job of grocery shopping or stretching their food budgets. “This isn’t about whose fault it is,” Ramo said. “It’s about what can we do about it. Are we doing right by our citizens?”

Squier’s controversial email comment went on to say that, instead of expanding current food programs, we should focus on getting proper nutrition to children and adults.

In her defense, I’m sure she misspoke again. Because a well-informed chief of an agency in charge of providing services to the poor would know that we have to do both.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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