Childhood hunger is a problem throughout the country. And it’s a particularly serious issue in New Mexico: There, more than 1 in 4 children are at risk for not having enough to eat, and the state ranks second in the nation for childhood hunger.
To increase kids’ access to healthy foods, healthcare providers like Albuquerque’s Presbyterian Healthcare System are stepping up to the plate. In 2013, the USDA began funding child feeding programs at hospitals in Arkansas and Oklahoma. And this year, it expanded its reach with a pilot program in New Mexico.
Since February, Presbyterian Healthcare System (PHS) has been offering free meals for children at three of its regional hospitals. “Recent studies have shown there is a direct correlation between food insecurity and its association with poor health,” says Bill Ludwig, USDA Food and Nutrition Service Southwest regional administrator. “Therefore, it’s important we partner with the medical community so we can work together in the fight against hunger.
The meals are available at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, Socorro General Hospital and Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis. And though these aren’t the only local places that offer feeding programs, for many children, they’re more accessible. Many meal pickups for children run by area organizations are hosted in community centers or in parks. But the meals are only available for a two-hour window, and the programs don’t run every day. “Since our meals are offered at a standing cafeteria, we can increase the number of hours that food is available,” says Leigh Caswell, Presbyterian Health System’s Director of Community Health. Though hours vary between hospitals, meals are generally available for a six- to eight- hour window every day.
During operating hours, any child can come into the cafeteria and get something to eat, along with some information on making healthy food choices. Kids are required to sign in so the hospital can track how many children are being fed, and all meals need to be eaten on site in the cafeteria. One of the hospitals also offers discounted meals for parents who come in with their children. “We’re supporting families to eat together,” Caswell says.
The number of meals served is reported to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, and the department submits the information to the USDA. The USDA reimburses the department for the meals, and the department reimburses the hospitals.
Similar to school cafeterias, the program follows the USDA’s child nutrition guidelines to ensure that kids receive balanced meals. The meals are put together using the items that the cafeteria is already serving, so there’s no need to devote additional labor toward making anything new. “We identify that the meals are child nutrition plates, so it has a fruit, a vegetable, a grain, a dairy and so on,” Caswell says.
Utilizing the cafeterias has made implementing the programs easy, but there has still been a learning curve. For instance, PHS has to submit menus to the USDA to show that their meals meet federal nutrition guidelines. “It’s a new thing for healthcare to do something like this,” Caswell says. To ease the transition, the USDA and Children, Youth and Families Department has come in to train staff and help get the program up and running. “People are really excited that we’re doing this, so they’re working hard to be successful,” Caswell says.
All those efforts seem to be paying off. So far, the program has served close to 750 children, and PHS is continuing to spread the word throughout the community. “We’ve created fliers and coupons that have information on where the cafeteria is and what the hours are. But kids don’t need to have one of the [coupons] in order to be served,” Caswell says.
And soon, help for even more of New Mexico’s kids will be on the way. “We plan to expand [to other hospitals] this summer. We’re not sure how many, but for now, at least one more, and it’s one of our larger hospitals,” Caswell says.
Ultimately, the system’s goal is to offer free meals for children at all of its eight area locations. “We’re a nonprofit health system, and our purpose is about improving health in communities we serve,” Caswell says. “For our staff and our providers, this is something that people are really proud of.”