Depending on the data source one consults, New Mexico is either the poorest or the second poorest state in the United States (Bishaw, 2013). Racial and ethnic populations make the state diverse, but Native Americans and Hispanics are among the most disadvantaged populations in the nation, and this also holds true for the populations of these groups in New Mexico (Macartney, S., 2011). The state has the 3rd highest teen (15-19 years old) birth rate in the nation (Office of Adolescent Health, 2013) and the highest rate of children who live below the poverty line. This reflection discusses the challenge of child hunger, often coincident with poverty, in New Mexico and sketches some of the avenues available to secure possible positive change.
How does one go about addressing so complex a problem? National and state experts alike overwhelmingly argue that early intervention is crucial. New Mexico has the highest incidence of child hunger in the country, with roughly 1 of every 3 children suffering either from food deprivation or insecurity (Kids Count Data Center, 2013). Chronically hungry children are incapable of reaching their full physical and cognitive potentials (Alaimo, Olson, Frongillo, & Briefel, 2001). Meeting this challenge must be one of the first priorities for all interested in strengthening the state. This raises the related and difficult question of what hope these disadvantaged children have to see the amelioration of their situation in an already inadequate economy.
In fact, in recent years some New Mexico policy-makers have sought to increase impoverished children’s access to food. Unfortunately these proposals have been swept up in partisan disagreements and the last proposed law to combat child hunger stalled in the state senate. To put the matter less politely, researchers have shown repeatedly that hunger dramatically decreases children’s physical, mental, and cognitive abilities (Olson, 1999), but New Mexico’s legislators nevertheless continue to spin their proverbial wheels concerning action to address the crisis.
As a children’s case manager I worked closely with the New Mexico Child, Youth and Families Department from 2006 to 2008 (CYFD). I worked with families who could not afford to feed their children adequately. That situation was overwhelmingly the result of a lack of money and resources. A lot of what I saw personally was that families, especially those led by young parents, did not always know how to stretch their resources. Young mothers (nearly half the children in the state live in single-parent households and most of these are headed by single women) are not always equipped to plan and prepare nutritious meals on a very limited budget, or to have many family resources in general. Community extension and outreach programs are an excellent way to combat their general ignorance of family budgeting and of nutrition. In addition, federally subsidized school breakfast and lunch programs are an invaluable resource for these families.
In today’s technology-rich environment many education and capacity building programs are offered on-line. This is not necessarily the best solution for New Mexico families as Internet access is relatively low in the more rural and impoverished areas of the state (Bureau of Business and Economic Research, 2013). But during my tenure at New Mexico State University (NMSU) I witnessed success with programs in which extension agents offered cooking and family finance management classes in the community. These professionals also helped young parents seek other forms of help for their children when they needed it. In addition, NMSU and the University of New Mexico each offer family wellness and education programs, and I hope that state funding for these efforts continues. In short, it is not only food and nutrition needs and poverty to which the state must give attention to reduce child hunger. In addition to these concerns, New Mexico must also develop intervention strategies that take family factors, such as a mother’s age and education, into consideration (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997).
Overall, New Mexico’s policy-makers must continue to address family needs and resources if they are to develop ways and means of reducing child food insecurity and hunger. The same young mothers who find planning meals and cooking for their families difficult are also likely to struggle with parenting. From my own experience I know that the parents of impoverished and at-risk families want help; at least half of my caseload were cases of self-referral to CYFD. These mothers (and some fathers) knew well they were struggling and the only possible source of help of which they were aware was family services. This is not good enough. Low-income parents with families in New Mexico, like those throughout the country, are loathe to contact state child and family services. This is so, because such parents must weigh the difficulty the family faces with the possibility that their children may be removed from their home. In order for the state’s childhood hunger and nutrition situation to improve, New Mexico’s policy makers must focus on the family context, and create a range of assistance options for struggling families where they live. These must be targeted to the various dimensions of the problem. Partisan squabbling should not be permitted to prevent this needed public action.
Alaimo, D., Olson, C. M., Frongillo, E. A., & Briefel, R.R. (2001). Food insufficiency, family income, and health in US preschool and school-aged children. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 1-11.
Bishaw, A. (2013). Poverty: 2000 to 2012. American Survey Briefs. Found athttp://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr12-01.pdf
Brooks-Gunn, J. & Duncan, G. J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. Children and Poverty, 7, 55-71.
Bureau of Business and Economic Research. (2013). Broadband subscription and internet use in New Mexico. University of New Mexico.
Kids Count Data Center. (2013). Children in poverty. Retrieved February 4 from http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/43-children-in-poverty?loc=1&loct=2#ranking/2/any/true/868/any/322
Macartney, S. (2011). Child poverty in the United States 2009 and 2010: Selected race groups and Hispanic origin. American Community Survey Briefs. Found at http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acsbr10-05.pdf
Office of Adolescent Health, (2013). New Mexico adolescent reproductive health facts. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-health-topics/reproductive-health/states/nm.html
Olson, C. M. (1999). Nutrition and health outcomes associated with food insecurity and hunger. The Journal of Nutrition, 129, 521S-524-S.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2014, January 6). State and county quick facts: New Mexico. Retrieved February 5, 2014, from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/35000.html
Zoë Cornwell is a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in the Human Development department with a focus on family studies at Virginia Tech. Her focus is on the leisure time of married mothers of Hispanic origin. Zoë received her Master’s of Science in marriage and family therapy from New Mexico State University. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech Zoë worked as a children’s case manager and a family therapist. She grew up seeing beauty in the browns and purples of the desert, and she cannot wait to move back to New Mexico.