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Maria E. Santiago, a parent of two children who attend La Mesa Elementary School in Albuquerque, said that the monthly food pantry at her children’s school helps her family “to have food every day.”
La Mesa Elementary is one of many elementary schools across the state that has benefitted from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico’s (BCBSNM) grant to Roadrunner Food Bank’s Childhood Hunger Initiative. In order to help feed hungry children and families, BCBSNM awarded the first of three annual $60,000 donations starting in 2015 to fund mobile food pantries at elementary schools. The grant also sponsors mobile food pantries at two senior centers as part of Roadrunner Food Bank’s Senior Hunger Initiative.
Over the past three years, the BCBSNM grant to the Childhood Hunger Initiative brought more than 780,000 pounds of food to 50,000 clients — people including Santiago and her children. “I just love the program,” Santiago said. “It really helps my kids, my family, to get food on the table.”
According to Feeding America’s 2017 Map the Meal Gap report, food insecurity is an issue for one in six New Mexicans, and the rate of hunger for children in the state is even higher. One in four children is food insecure in New Mexico; in some counties, the percentage of food insecure children climbs to as high as 33.6 and 34.8 percent.
“New Mexico has high rates of poverty, and with that comes hunger,” said Sonya Warwick, Roadrunner Food Bank communications officer. “Research shows that low-income families do not have the ability to access nutritious food. Roadrunner’s food distributions serve Title 1 schools, which are comprised of a majority of students from low-income families.”
A primary goal of the Childhood Hunger Initiative is to feed hungry children by bringing nutritious food to entire families in their own communities. Warwick explained that the positive outcomes of the program are numerous. In addition to supplementing households’ monthly food needs with healthy foods, the pantries help families save their limited resources for other essentials, such as gasoline and utilities. The distributions ease families’ worries about where their next meal will come from. And having access to food pantries directly at their children’s school fosters a sense of comfort and trust.
At La Mesa Elementary, Santiago knows most of the pantry volunteers, many of whom are teachers and staff at the school. Her children usually accompany her to distributions. “They love the way it’s set up,” she said. “They feel like they’re shopping for food.”
On distribution days, a large truck delivers pallets of food, which volunteers unpack and organize. In effect, the school space transforms into a farmer’s market where families move from table to table, picking up canned and boxed items, proteins, dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables. While the types of foods vary every month, each family receives approximately 50 pounds, about half of which includes perishables. A few examples of items a family might receive include cereal, beans, tomatoes, bananas, lettuce and other nutritional foods. Warwick shared that recipients have told Roadrunner Food Bank that these distributions offer some of the only avenues in which they’re able to obtain nutritious food.
Receiving vegetables and fruit has been particularly beneficial to Santiago. “Especially fruits because it’s hard for me to afford fruits at the store,” she said. Thanks to the program, Santiago said that her family is able to have more nutritious and balanced meals with items such as salad, protein and rice.
Reynaluz Juarez, community school coordinator at La Mesa Elementary, helps organize the monthly food pantry at the school and works closely with families in the community. “Knowing that they can come here, even if it’s just once a month, or that we’ll connect them with other resources out in the community, makes them feel like the school is taking care of them.”
“We also know that kids who are hungry don’t learn well,” Juarez added.
Roadrunner Food Bank’s Childhood Hunger Initiative survey indicates that as a result of its program, 97 percent of surveyed families reported that they ate more fruits and vegetables, and 83 percent said they ate less unhealthy foods. In addition, 61 percent of the families said their children had better grades and 56 percent had better school attendance.
The Childhood Hunger Initiative is impacting lives, Warwick said. “It’s changing the way we can actually feed children for academic success. We always say that food is the first school supply to us because you can’t really educate a child if they don’t have food in their bellies.”
The BCBSNM partnership has also created more awareness about health and health issues related to hunger, Warwick stated. The Care Van®, BCBSNM’s mobile health unit, partners with licensed medical professionals to provide basic health services at many of the school distribution sites.
In 2017, BCBSNM renewed the grant to serve 11 new schools, including middle and high schools, across New Mexico for three years. The donations come from BCBSNM’s major grant program, Healthy Kids, Healthy Families®, which is designed to reach children and their families by focusing on nutrition, physical activity, disease prevention and management and supporting safe environments.
“It’s allowed us to make sure this program stays viable,” Warwick said of the BCBSNM grant. “Without that funding, without any of our donors’ funding, the Food Bank wouldn’t exist. We exist and provide a service to the community, and we only do that because people are gracious enough to make financial contributions to the Food Bank. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico makes our mission a reality. Our donors and our volunteers make our mission a reality.”
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