Presbyterian Healthcare Services (PHS) of New Mexico has expanded its free meal program for youngsters 18 and under to a fifth site starting Oct. 15 when Lincoln County Medical Center (LCMC) began offering the service every day between noon and 1:30 p.m.
The initiative is a partnership among PHS, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Southwest Region and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.
The USDA operates the federally funded, state-administered Child and Adult Care Food Program during the school year and the Summer Food Service Program in the summer to serve healthy meals to kids and teens in low-income areas at no charge. As part of the program, hospitals provide select healthy options and receive reimbursement from the USDA. The food must be eaten at the hospitals.
PHS’s program originally launched in February 2016 at Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis, Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque and Socorro General Hospital, then expanded that fall to Presbyterian Kaseman Hospital in Albuquerque.
The rollout did not include—and still doesn’t include—all eight of the Presbyterian system hospital sites because “first, we wanted to figure out how it worked—we wanted to pilot it, essentially,” explains Leigh Caswell, director of the Presbyterian Center for Community Health. “There are also requirements for how [USDA] determines whether your hospital is eligible,” she adds, requirements which are mainly based on the level of poverty around a facility as determined by free/reduced price meal eligibility at nearby school sites, though the makeup of the patient population also plays a role.
In addition, Caswell says, individual site foodservice directors “really need to be on board and excited about the program” to make it viable at their location.
She says it’s unlikely all eight PHS hospitals will end up participating as one of the hospital cafeterias is “just too small” to support the program. On the other hand, the system’s planned new facility in Santa Fe probably will participate at some point after it opens next year.
Meal counts served through the program vary widely, from “hundreds a month” at Presbyterian Hospital in downtown Albuquerque to less than 10 a day at some other sites.
As a child is required only to sign their name to get the meal with no further inquiry, data about how they came to be at the site is sketchy, Caswell says, but she speculates many are there to visit family members or live in the immediate area. At the site in Socorro, a whole class would sometimes come to the hospital to get an afternoon snack not provided in the school.
Participation, as might be expected, peaks when school is not in session. This year, June with some 3,200 meals served, and July with 2,200, were the busiest months for the program. As of October 1, the program had provided nearly 15,700 meals at the four hospitals participating in the program.
Hours of operation play a part in meal counts. The hour-and-a-half window currently in place at Lincoln is the shortest, with some others extending to as much as eight hours—from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
While each site manages the program a bit differently, all conform to federal requirements for healthy meals.
“The foodservice staff know what that looks like so when a kid comes in and says they want the free meal, they would get a specific meal depending on the cafeteria,” Caswell explains. Some assemble it to order while others have pre-prepared meals ready to be served. The meals generally rotate with the cafeteria’s cycle schedule so they are not always the same thing, she adds.
For example, typical meals at the Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis include roast beef with mashed potatoes, green beans, a dinner roll and milk, or spaghetti and meatballs with a garden salad and sliced peaches. Snacks include options like celery sticks with peanut butter, milk or juice, or cheddar cheese slices with grapes and milk.
“One of the big reasons we [participate in the free child meal program] is our purpose as a healthcare organization to improve the health of patients and communities we serve,” Caswell says. “Healthy eating is one of our community health priorities and that has driven us to look creatively at how we can address food insecurity in our communities.”
One in four children and one in six residents in New Mexico are food insecure, she notes, one of the highest rates in the nation.