Gladys Grado, a young mom with an obvious concern for her child’s health, said she is grateful for the meals provided at her South Valley neighborhood park throughout the summer. She described them as a nutritious alternative to fast food.
Grado was with her 5-year-old daughter, Kalli, and nephew, Anthony Garcia, 11, at Tom Tenorio Park on Tuesday for the formal start of the 2015 Summer Food Service Program. The three clearly were enjoying the green grass, blue skies and gentle breeze as much as the chicken nuggets and the rest of their lunch.
“It’s a great program,” Grado said. “Parents might be constantly at work or stuck in poverty. This gives kids an opportunity to get something good and healthy to eat – plus they get to play with other kids at the park.”
And the meals are free, she said. “That’s the best part.”
The Grados were part of a small group who joined local, state and federal officials in ushering in a new year of the summer lunch program, which began in 1968 and in unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County alone is expected to provide nearly 200,000 meals by Aug. 7. That contrasts with 158,000 last year.
In the Albuquerque area, the figure is expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 580,000, and, statewide, 2 million – at more than 650 locations.
The $400 million-plus U.S. Department of Agriculture program is operated in New Mexico by the Children, Youth and Families Department and has grown considerably in recent years. By one measure, New Mexico provides more meals, per capita, to low-income children than any other state.
A chuckle rippled through the audience at Tom Tenorio Park when the federal official in charge of the program, Audrey Rowe, said New Mexico was second-biggest participant among the states. She laughed when Gov. Susana Martinez corrected her by noting that Washington, D.C., might be No. 1, but it is not a state.
Rowe, administrator of Food and Nutrition Services for the USDA, said the government serves 21.7 million meals on school days nationwide, but only 3.8 million during the summer. “That’s a significant gap,” she said.
At a conference earlier in the day, Rowe said private-federal partnerships can help expand the number of children who receive free meals in the summer, when schools often are unavailable to sponsor such programs.
Mobile meal operations that use school buses to deliver food to locations such as mobile home parks are well-suited to rural states like New Mexico, she said at a conference sponsored by Presbyterian Health Services and Promedica. Other possible sites include children’s hospitals, low-income housing projects, and medical clinics that qualify for federal funding, she said.
The New Mexico Department of Health is considering sponsoring free summer meals at state health offices that serve families enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program, Rowe said.
During the Martinez administration, the program in New Mexico has expanded by 7.5 percent since 2010.
Many children don’t welcome the advent of the summer vacation, but actually regret it, Martinez said, not knowing where their next meal is coming from.
“Sadly, many of our children will face the unacceptable uncertainty of missing meals throughout summer break when they can no longer rely on their school cafeterias,” the governor said. “That is why our summer food program is so critical. It provides New Mexico’s low-income children with nutritious meals that they need and deserve – even when school is not in session.”
That is one aspect of the program that Adrienne Mares finds most attractive. The pre-kindergarten teacher is off for the summer and enjoys hanging out with her children at the local park.
Her children, Santiago Gordon, 9, and Savannah Gordon, 6, said they really like the chicken nuggets. But family friend Joe Ortega, 10, prefers the peanut butter and jelly served on crackers.
“If you have a full belly,” Martinez said, “you can not only play harder and longer, but also study (or) pick up a book.”
Journal staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.