The NM Food and Agriculture Policy Council

 

Pam Roy

 

 In 2005, several community members and I arrived at a high school in Albuquerque for a meeting about childhood health and beneficial community programs. The main entrance was lined with 26 soda and snack food machines. We recognized that each day every student walked though this entrance and was immediately bombarded with advertisements encouraging them to eat the most unhealthy options. These foods were competition for the school meal programs that provided a nutritious lunch (by USDA standards), and with fruit and vegetable snack offerings. It didn’t take us long to decide that we had to do something about the situation.

 

In a state where childhood obesity and diabetes are epidemic, it does not make sense to tease children with junk food. Even more ironic, the more soda and candy a school could sell, the more funds they would have for athletic programs. We knew it was time to investigate the school policies that allowed for these foods. Through our research we found that both state and federal policies drive school food and nutrition programs.

 

In 2002, the NM Food and Agriculture Policy Council (NMFAPC) was formed through the efforts of Farm to Table (FTT), and had chosen to address health issues as one of several priorities. The Council consisted of a diverse group of organizations and agencies in-state and across the country, representing health, hunger, nutrition, agriculture, economics, environment, education, tribal communities and more. Students, teachers, school food service directors, parents and pediatricians joined the Council, seeking to minimize “competitive foods” in the schools and maximize opportunities for children to access nutritious meals and snacks.

 

How We Achieve Our Collective Work — Policy Councils and Legislative Advocacy

Because none of our federal, state or local governments have a “Department of Food,” food system issues are handled by various agencies. Food policy councils can facilitate collaboration and coordination—among the different governmental entities whose laws, rules, regulations and health/economic development programs impact the food and agriculture system—and between agency representatives and other food system stakeholders such as community organizations, agricultural producers and other food entrepreneurs.

 

The NMFAPC researches policy issues and educates state and federal policy makers about key priorities. Through a campaign launched by the NMFAPC in 2006, NM was one of the first states in the US to change its “school nutrition rules,” effectively eliminating the majority of snack foods in school corridors. Since then, the Council has worked at both state and federal levels to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in schools, implemented a statewide “farm-to-school” program, advocated for a federal “Farm-to-School” grant program, and worked to change rules to make it easier for schools to purchase locally grown produce from farmers. All of this has come to fruition in less than a decade. It has taken concentrated, deliberate effort among dedicated organizations and agencies that, through the NMFAPC, are committed to working together.

 

Farm To Table – Providing Training and Technical Assistance

In addition to its advocacy at the state and federal levels as part of the NMFAPC, FTT provides training and technical assistance to assist the development of city/county community-based food policy councils or task forces. FTT is working with groups in Bernalillo, Grant, McKinley, Doña Ana, Taos, Socorro and Santa Fe counties, as well as a Navajo group in Tohatchi. Along with the Río Arriba Food Policy Council, these groups have emerged to address local food system issues and work on “community food assessments” to identify what kinds of foods are available to community members and how much of that food is grown nearby.

 

The Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Grant County Food Policy Councils/groups gained support from their cities and counties for the Healthy Kids-Healthy Economy Bill, a 2013 state appropriation request to increase the purchase of NM-grown fruits and vegetables for school meals. The appropriation would address the impact of new federal rule changes increasing fruits and vegetables in school meals, and at the same time, economically benefit NM farmers.

 

Administrative Advocacy

Once a law is passed, FTT works closely with organizations and agency representatives at state and federal levels help develop policies and rules that can be enacted at the administrative level to maximize its impact. For example, in 2006, when the NMFAPC worked to pass legislation to eliminate or significantly restrict junk food in NM schools, a strong partnership was built within the NMFAPC. As part of the NMFAPC, FTT, the Departments of Agriculture, Health, Human Services, Action for Healthy Kids, the NM Pediatric Association and the NM School Nutrition Association all rallied together to create these changes.

 

In 2007, these groups again worked together at the federal level. The Council helped the NMDOH obtain $600,000 in federal funds for WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs, providing tens of thousands of seniors and low-income families in NM increased access to fresh, local produce and putting all that money directly into farmers’ pockets. In 2010, the Council also collaborated with the NM Farmers’ Marketing Association and the NM Environment Department to change administrative rules, allowing residents to produce low-risk food products in their home kitchens for sale at farmers’ markets.

 

FTT has also engaged with state and federal agencies in collaborative problem solving. For example, FTT is working with USDA Rural Development to get more funding to NM for work on rural food system infrastructure such as storage and distribution and for supporting rural food enterprises. This ongoing work will likely include legislative advocacy for changes to USDA funding programs to make them more adaptable to the unique circumstances of NM and other Southwest states. In addition, FTT is working with the Interagency on Obesity Prevention to assess how well schools are implementing healthy eating programs and coordinating these with their School Wellness Plans.

 

Tying It Together

As more and more families, businesses, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies recognize the important links between food and health and between local agriculture and rural economic development, the need for coordination and the opportunity for successful advocacy grow. Policy councils at the state and local levels ensure that these issues are addressed in a systemic manner and that those who are most impacted by food, nutrition and agriculture policy understand the issues and are empowered to present their perspectives to policy makers and agency representatives.

 

Farm to Table’s goal for the next three years will be to press for full coordination of public and private programs, to improve our children’s health, our environment, and the ability of all our communities to provide accessible healthy affordable foods to all their members.

 

 

Pam Roy is executive director of Farm to Table and coordinator of the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council, which is based in Santa Fe.

 

 

[SIDEBAR:]

 

Healthy Kids—Healthy Economy: NM-Grown Produce for School Meals

Have you eaten in your local school cafeteria recently? If you have, you may have noticed a change in the menu. There are more fruits and veggies on the plates, whole wheat pasta and less chocolate milk. Due to new federal school nutrition rules, schools are now required to serve twice as many fruits and vegetables. These rules were put in place to help stave off the growing obesity epidemic. The challenge is that these federal rules were put in place without enough money to pay for the required increase in fruits and veggies.

 

To combat the problem, in the current session, the NM State Legislature is being asked to invest in the school lunch program with a bill requesting $1.44 million to support the purchase of NM-grown produce. This “Healthy Kids-Healthy Economy Bill” is a “win-win-win.” Students will enjoy fresh, juicy apples and watermelons, ripe tomatoes, crisp carrots, salad greens, sprouts, fresh corn on the cob and more, our farmers will benefit economically, and schools will have much-needed funding to meet the new federal rules.

 

Great partnerships have been developed to make the program work. FTT, the American Friends Service Committee and other organizations provide training and technical assistance to farmers, the NM School Nutrition Association provides educational programs to school food service directors, and the Departments of Agriculture and Food and Nutrition Services Bureau provide critical support.

 

Sounds great, but keep in mind that this won’t be the first year the Legislature has heard this bill. “Healthy Kids-Healthy Economy” will once again be sponsored by Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas, and it has broad support, but has not been funded to date. Senator Campos, president of Luna College, is a true advocate for health, education, agriculture and local economic issues. He is a steadfast champion of this legislation.

 

Nineteen percent of our children in NM are considered obese by the age of eight, and in some areas of the state it is as high as 50 percent. One in four children is considered food-insecure. School meals can be the most important meal of the day for these children, and healthy meals in our schools teach lifelong healthy eating habits. Our children deserve our support for this legislation.

 

During the legislative session (beginning Jan. 16) you can call your legislators at 505.986.4600 and ask that they support the “NM Grown Produce for School Meals” legislation—also known as “Healthy Kids—Healthy Economy.” To learn more,contact the NM Food and Agriculture Policy Council at 505.473.1004 x11.