It was the jury-rigged basketball hoop hanging in the family barn that started Mag Strittmatter on the road to sports icon status.
Strittmatter, the president and CEO of Roadrunner Food Bank, went from playing with her older brothers and their friends (“I was just the pesky younger sister”) to joining her high school team and averaging 27 points per game. When it came time for college, she became the first woman at Pennsylvania State University to win a Title IX scholarship.
Title IX, which is 50 years old this year, is the landmark federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities.
“It changed my life,” Strittmatter says. “Just the chance to be a student athlete and to have that experience — it taught me about time management. I was team captain, and it taught me about leadership.”
Strittmatter went on to do fundraising and development work for Planned Parenthood and the University of Colorado Foundation. Directly before coming to New Mexico, Strittmatter worked in the Denver area as executive director of The Action Center, which provides food, clothing and other services to those experiencing hardship.
She was recruited to head New Mexico’s largest food bank starting in 2018. She has earned recognition for working with New Mexico lawmakers and other state officials to view hunger as part of a broader problem and to seek increased funding for the five members of the New Mexico Association of Food Banks.
Under her tenure, Roadrunner distributed nearly 60 million pounds of food last year, the most in the organization’s 43-year history.
With her two social service-related jobs, Strittmatter has found her passion. It stems from her own experience with poverty and food insecurity while growing up on a rural Pennsylvania dairy farm. Her family included six kids and a dad who had a permanent disability, making her mother “the breadwinner for a family of eight, at a time in the ’60s” when there were few support services.
“I saw her pain. I saw what she went through and for me, and as I got older, pieces started to connect,” Strittmatter says. “That pain of not having, but also understanding it wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t my dad’s fault. It was circumstance, and having the opportunity to do something about it and be able to pay that back — that’s how I got into this work, and that’s why I’ve stayed in this work for over 20 years.”
What is the biggest issue facing Roadrunner Food Bank right now?
“It’s how do we budget for the unknown? How do we budget when we’re facing escalators that impact our work to the core, when you’re talking about food, freight and fuel? We pay the freight to bring product to us, in many cases. We’re trying to be as conservative as we can in estimating what our cost per gallon will be. Right now, our inventory is at a low. It’s like paddling on the stream, and you start seeing rocks. That’s not good.”
How do you envision dealing with this?
“The support we’re getting from the state, from the (legislative) session, is invaluable. It’s helping us fill a void. We got special session funding of $3.6 million. A total of $5 million was divided amongst members of the New Mexico Association of Food Banks. It’s a godsend. And we continue to look for opportunities. We have food sourcers on staff, and that’s what they do. They’re on a constant hunt for product.”
Was there a particular moment while growing up in poverty that inspired you to do this work?
“It was probably an in-my-face kind of thing, because you don’t know you’re poor until someone points it out for you. I remember we were sent to a Catholic grade school. I was 9 or 10. I had a sister who was two years older and a brother three years older, and we were all in school at the same time. The nuns … wanted to show the movie ‘Lilies of the Field.’ In order to watch it, we each had to pay a dime. Well, we didn’t have it. Someone who knew of our circumstances took great joy in telling the nuns that we were too poor, that we couldn’t afford it. Everyone else watched the movie downstairs in the lunchroom, and we were sent to the classroom above that lunchroom and had to do homework. That was when (I) had that realization.”
What was it like to transition from barn basketball to a real team?
“They called all the girls into the (high school) auditorium in the spring and told us, ‘Guess what? This fall, we’re going to have a basketball team.’ And it was all because of Title IX. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, because now I’m going to get to play against girls, and I don’t have to get beat up by guys. And so that fall, my sophomore year, we had our team, The Highlanders. They didn’t have enough time to order uniforms, so we had to wear our gym outfits and our pinnies, for God’s sake. But, hey, we were happy. We were out there.”
Do you still play or follow the sport?
“I watch it. I keep an eye on the women. In 2019, I went back to (Penn State) to tour the facility, meet the coaches. For them it was about understanding the beginning, and I represented that beginning.”
What’s it like to be a pioneer?
“I look back on it, and I think, ‘Wow.’ It wasn’t perfect, but it was an opportunity, and that’s all you ever want, is a chance. And then to advocate for others to have that chance — that was another thing, just making sure (you’re) adding your voice to conversations around things like Title IX, the importance of that.”
What are your favorite foods?
“I haven’t met a Reuben sandwich that I would turn down.”
Do you have a role model?
“I’d say Eleanor Roosevelt, because she was a woman born before her time, and that didn’t stop her. I admire her for saying, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to say this. This is important.’ And it’s always a good reminder: Don’t play small. In order to be safe, am I taking care of me but failing the people that I’m to help, that I represent? There are times when you have to say out loud what’s needed to be said. And I know I’ve been forceful in my expression of that here about hunger. And I’m not apologetic about that, either, because there are some realities that we have to face.”
What’s something you wish you had done differently?
“In college, I was not the best free-throw shooter. I should have worked harder, and I’ll tell you why. Because I ended my career with 975 points and if I had made just seven free throws every year, I would have been the first person to hit 1,000 points in the school. There’s nothing I can do about it now, of course, but dang it.”
THE BASICS: Margaret (Mag) Elizabeth Strittmatter, 65, born in Patton, Pa.; married to Marty Smith since 2014; two dogs, Gunther, a Shih Tzu mix and Beau, a Morkie (Maltese and Yorkshire terrier mix); master’s degree in broadcast journalism and mass communication, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1999; bachelor’s in English/writing, Pennsylvania State University, 1978.
POSITIONS: President and CEO, Roadrunner Food Bank, since 2018; executive director and director of development and communications, The Action Center, Lakewood, Colo., 2002-2018; development director, University of Colorado Foundation, 1996-1998.
OTHER: Board vice president, New Mexico Association of Food Banks; committee member, state Food, Farm and Hunger Initiative; member, Leadership New Mexico 2022 class.