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Programs Sow Seeds of Health

By Denise Miller
Of the Journal
    Last year, Dave and Loretta Fresquez of Monte Vista Organic Farm in Española grew 700 pounds of carrots for Albuquerque schoolchildren because they like knowing more kids are eating healthful, fresh foods.
    Cecilia Rosacker-McCord of El Rancho Nido Farm in Socorro grew extra squash and green beans when she learned new customers— low-income seniors— would be coming to the Socorro and Albuquerque Downtown farmers' markets where she sells her fresh produce.
    Both of these small-scale growers, and hundreds more, benefited from two pilot programs that were funded during last year's New Mexico Legislature session. The big winners were the 6,000 school kids in Albuquerque's North Valley cluster and about 2,600 low-income seniors in six counties, who all got to eat fresh produce they may not otherwise have consumed.
    The Farmers' Market Nutrition Enhancement Program and the Local Fruits and Vegetables in School Lunches programs have bills in the Legislature this year in hopes of expanding their reach. While health care reform may be taking center stage at the Roundhouse, both of these bills support preventive health solutions for two at-risk populations, while also helping farmers and our rural communities.
Rising produce prices
    The rates of childhood obesity and diabetes are alarming across the country and in New Mexico. One statement from the New England Journal of Medicine sums it up succinctly: If we don't reverse the obesity epidemic by improving our young people's diets, we're in danger of raising the first generation of American children with a lower life expectancy than their parents.
    More than 212,000 New Mexico schoolchildren participate in the free or reduced-lunch program, and many of these kids eat less produce in part due to its relatively high price.
    Fresh fruits and vegetables have increased by 40 percent in the past 15 years compared to a 20 percent decrease for high sugar and fat snacks, according to a 2006 report titled "Food Without Thought" published by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
    Now consider that schools receive a federal reimbursement of only $1 per meal, of which 30 cents is for milk. That is where the local produce in schools program can help.
    Last year Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, got $85,000 for her district in Albuquerque's North Valley to launch the program.
    The program puts two servings of fresh fruit and vegetables on the plates of 6,000 kids twice a week for the whole school year.
    "It's a win-win for our schools and local agriculture," said Feldman.
'About the kids'
    For farmers like the Fresquezes, who sell most of their produce at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market and to a few restaurant clients, selling to schools is a labor of love. They made about $1 less per pound for their 700 pounds of carrots that they easily could have sold at market, but as Dave said, "It's more about the kids, and I'd like other farmers to do the same."
    Craig Mapel, marketing specialist for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture along with Le Adams, director of Farm to School and co-director of Farm to Table, spent countless hours coordinating the program and sourcing produce.
    Mapel helped local farmers sell 90 cases of pears to the APS schools— along with 90 cases of peaches, 800 cantaloupes, 200 watermelons, 1,500 pounds of table grapes, 900 pounds of zucchini and more. And each of these quantities represents just one serving for 6,000 kids.
Seniors benefit, too
    While the program requires extra planning and delivery, it has been has been well-received by students, said Mary Swift, director of food nutrition service at Albuquerque Public Schools.
    "The kids seem to really enjoy it, and since the snacks are often included in class time, it's also a great opportunity for teachers to include nutrition information," she noted.
    Low-income elderly are another group in need of good nutrition. In New Mexico, which has one of the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the country, a 2005 study found there were more than 21,000 seniors who seek emergency food assistance. The Farmers' Market Nutrition Enhancement Program gives low-income seniors who receive commodities vouchers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at area farmers' markets, supporting their fragile health as well as our local farmers.
    Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, one of the bill's sponsors, witnessed the program in action at the Belen Farmers' Market. "It was great to see people lining up to buy bags of fresh fruits and vegetables that they wouldn't have been able to afford. I also know it helped many of our farmers," said Tripp.
    Along with Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, Tripp is leading the effort to expand funding by $250,000 this year. It was funded at $110,000 last year.
    You can support these bills by calling your legislators. The Farmers' Market Nutrition Enhancement Program is Senate Bill 49, and House Bill 156. Local Fruits and Vegetables in School Lunches is House Bill 164. Farmers interested in supplying produce to the Albuquerque school program should call Le Adams at 473-1004.