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New Mexico Food Gap Task Force invades the ‘food desert’

New Mexico Food Gap Task Force invades the ‘food desert’

ALBUQUERQUE — The New Mexico Food Gap Task Force is expected to submit its first report to Gov. Bill Richardson today. The panel’s members want the state to pay for fresh fruits and veggies in schools, and to help rural communities gain access to fresh foods. But with state revenues plummeting, will they be able to wrangle the cash?

While food banks put bags of food directly into the hands of the hungry, the Food Gap Task Force, a group appointed last year by Gov. Richardson, is charged with a more complicated mission: finding creative ways to help poor, rural areas of the state gain better access to healthy and affordable food. The task force is trying to close the “food gap” between financially comfortable city folk and cash-strapped residents of far-flung communities.

The most familiar face on the task force is activist Pam Roy, who is also a co-director of Farm to Table, and the director of the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council. As the co-founder of the Southwest Marketing Network, she has worked for years to help local farmers market their products. With the help of task force co-chair Brian Moore, a state representative and small grocery store owner from Clayton, the group’s proposals have been making the rounds of the Legislature’s interim committees, where they have drawn some significant interest.

Buy Local

Getting more locally grown produce in schools has long been is one of Roy’s goals. Buying locally helps family farmers and puts fresh fruit and vegetables on the plates of some kids who don’t eat a lot of lettuce that’s not sitting on top of a hamburger patty. Seems like a win-win for kids and schools, right? But sometimes local food costs a little more, and sometimes red tape gets in the way.

“We’re requesting a $3.3 million investment into the school meal program to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables — New Mexico-grown when possible,” Roy says.

That “when possible” thing is important. School food activists have long fought over federal policies that made it hard for school districts to request locally grown foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently made it clear that districts can request local products, but districts still struggle to come up with enough money for fresh fruits and vegetables, which are a lot more expensive than macaroni and cheese.

“Schools only get $2.57 [in reimbursement from the federal government] to provide a free lunch, and it costs them about $3.07 if they put a fresh fruit or vegetable option on the plate.”

Hence the $3.3 million.

Already there are 12 school districts in the state buying local foods, up from eight last year. Most buy apples, as well as pears, melons, tomatoes, salad greens, carrots and potatoes.

It’s no secret that New Mexico is in a budget crunch, but Roy is optimistic about the group’s chances in the next session. State Sen. Pete Campos and Reps. Rhonda King, Paul Bandy and Danice Picraux are among the bipartisan legislators whom Roy calls her “champions.”

Refrigerator Madness

Besides grocery money for schools, the task force wants to create a pilot program to invest in infrastructure in rural underserved communities. OK, it’s not as exciting as giving apples to hungry kids, but a small investment in reefers — commercial refrigerators, that is — could go a long way.

“One-third of our counties are considered what we call ‘food deserts,’” Roy says.

In a typical food desert, she explains, residents have to drive more than 10 miles to a grocery store, but in New Mexico it’s often more like 25 to 100 miles round trip. And when people have to drive a long way to get to a store, they’re less likely to buy food that spoils quickly — like fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We could go into a convenience store in Vaughn and say ‘Hey, we’ll help you put a cooler in here if you’ll put salads and oranges and apples in there.’ Then the only thing to buy in Vaughn isn’t a deep-fried burrito from Allsup’s. We could buy four or five coolers for $20,000,” Moore says.

When USDA invested in two large refrigeration units in northern New Mexico, it allowed schools to buy large quantities of apples, carrots and potatoes from local farmers, more than they could use immediately. In fact, the coolers’ supply of last season’s apples lasted into March of this year, Roy says.

Distribution Solution

Broadening the food distribution network is the last priority for the Food Gap Task Force. Many small towns in New Mexico don’t have grocery stores, and most of the small, rural stores that do exist are supplied by only one distributor, Affiliated Foods, which is based in Texas.

“The challenges of rural distribution are incredible. The stats are ugly. They pay $85 for what we pay $55 for, and they have to drive 35 miles to get it,” says Steve Warshawer, Enterprise Development Manager for La Montañita Coop, a member-owned family of grocery stores based in Albuquerque.

According to Roy, La Montañita has created an excellent example of an alternative distribution network with its regional foodshed project and Cooperative Distribution Center. To help New Mexico growers bring their products to market, the Coop’s trucks crisscross the state, picking up goods and delivering them to the Cooperative Distribution Center warehouse in Albuquerque. Although some of the products are sold through the Coop, many go to other grocery stores in the area.

A pilot program to strengthen the rural distribution system could help the Coop and other organizations pick up and deliver food to underserved communities.

“It could be a USDA commodity truck, a food bank truck or a Coop truck out on certain rounds, picking up and dropping off food. And a lot of these places don’t have retail stores, but most of them have a school, a community center, a convenience store, something like that where people could come to pick up food,” Warshawer says.

The details aren’t worked out, but that’s the point of a pilot project, he says.

“We’re trying to address rural food access and the rural economy … The goal is to ferret out which methods will achieve the desired result.”

Low Cash Flow

The problem, as usual, is money.

“A small investment by the state could go a long way,” Roy says. It could also spur private investment. The task force aims to execute these projects in partnership with the N.M. Department of Agriculture.

“We’ve had a lot of nonprofits like the McCune Charitable Foundation put money towards these issues and a partnership would be able to accept that money. That’s what we’re hoping for. We just need to get in there and do something,” Moore says.

But Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democratic Chair of the Legislative Finance Committee, is not so sanguine. How realistic is the task force’s hope that its projects be funded fully, to the tune of nearly $4 million?

“If the public wants a tax increase then there will be the money for it,” Smith says.

“And If I’m still chair then we’ll listen to it on its merit. But the only place you can find additional money now is to take it from education or health care. And that’s not a pleasant option,” he says.

Now all eyes are on the calendar as legislators wait for the next state revenue estimate, due in two weeks. It is not expected to be good.

Despite the dour forecast, Moore is hopeful that the task force’s proposals will receive some funding.

“We really just want to show people what we could do. We want to be able to say, ‘OK, here’s what we did with $25,000: We were able to provide apples for all the kids in after-school programs in Taos for one semester,’ or ‘For $5,000 we put a cooler in a chapter house [on the Navajo Reservation] and we helped them make fresh fruits and vegetables available for chapter house members,” Moore says.

“We know this has to be incremental. You can’t do it all in one chunk.”

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