For the second year in a row, New Mexico ranks No. 1 for childhood hunger, according to the Map the Meal Gap study produced by Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity and the largest network of food banks.
With one of every three children 18 and younger in the state growing up hungry, New Mexico has a childhood hunger rate of 29.2 percent, far exceeding the national average of 18.6 percent.
Bernalillo County, which has the state’s largest population, is ranked 11th among all counties in the state, with a 25.5 percent hunger rate among children and a 16.6 percent combined adult and children hunger rate.
Since 2011, the number of children in the state classified as hungry grew from 137,720 to the current total of 150,390; during that same time period, the total number of hungry people, children and adults, grew from 336,430 to 387,100.
“This should be a wake-up call for everyone in our state. Until we make sure that our children aren’t going to school hungry, we won’t be able to solve any of the other problems we have,” said Melody Wattenbarger, president and CEO of Roadrunner Food Bank, which is part of the Feeding America network.
“If you look at indicators like our children’s abysmal test scores, health, graduation rates and future wages, childhood hunger underpins them all. Agencies like ours can’t address this issue alone. It’s a statewide problem. It needs a statewide response.”
According to the Map the Meal Gap survey, the top five New Mexico counties with the highest rates of hunger for children are: Luna, 39.7 percent; Taos, 32.6 percent; Cibola, 32.4 percent; Guadalupe, 32.4 percent; and McKinley, 32.2 percent.
Overall, the top six counties for adult and children hunger combined are: Luna, 22.9 percent; McKinley, 22.2 percent; Cibola, 18.3 percent; Sierra, 18 percent; and Roosevelt/San Juan tied at 17.7 percent
The counties with the highest hunger rates are also among the most rural, “and there’s not much in the way of job opportunities,” said Roadrunner spokeswoman Sonya Warwick.
In response to childhood hunger, Wattenbarger said Roadrunner Food Bank will soon launch the Childhood Hunger Initiative, which will reach into 16 counties. “The best way to feed a hungry child is to feed the entire family. We’re going to focus our expansion on reaching children and their families at schools,” she said.