Curry County, in eastern New Mexico, a sparsely populated rural area, includes more people than good-paying jobs. As a result, an estimated 74 percent of the County's population is eligible for federal nutrition assistance based on income level.
While federal programs are available to help needy families in acquiring commodities, a shortage remains, especially for fresh foods like fruits and vegetables. As a result, many families in the area are limited to a diet that falls short of proper nutritional standards, which in turns promotes unhealthy conditions like obesity and diabetes.
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Sandy Bunch, New Mexico State Extension nutrition educator for Curry County, and Diana Hernandez, executive director of the Food Bank of Eastern New Mexico, are acutely aware of food shortages in the region.
The two met over lunch recently and, along with other interested parties, hashed out a local strategy designed not only to provide food assistance to families in need but also one that would offer food and nutrition education that would help those in need to learn and grow as they provide for the basic food needs of their families.
“We help families of all ages by distributing food and by providing healthy recipes, food tasting and nutrition information,” Bunch said about the new strategy.
They call the program “Produce to People” and kicked off the first event in September. The project is part of the Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition, or ICAN program, which is provided by the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service.
While Bunch and Hernandez spearheaded the project, other local groups and individuals were involved as well, including the entire Board of Directors of the Curry County Farm and Livestock Bureau, which volunteered to help out with the program.
“This is a community service, and many volunteers are needed,” said Board member Keith O’Rear. “There are lots of people coming out to receive the produce, including airmen from Cannon Air Force Base. Produce to People … supplements families’ food supply, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Produce is donated to the Food Bank and added to fresh food products that are purchased, and then are made available to needy families at a “free farmer's market” staged at the Food Bank every third Thursday of the month. At the most recent event on Nov. 19, over 6,000 pounds of produce were distributed to approximately 250 families as part of Produce to People project.
Bunch says the program differs from normal commodity programs. At each event she sets up shop at the free market and cooks new recipes that families are encouraged to try. Many of the recipes are made with produce and food products that needy families have never used and are not familiar with, like the soup Bunch made at the last market using zucchini squash in a vegetable soup.
Clovis resident Christina Burgin, who brings her children to the market to take advantage of the food and the learning experience, says she enjoys going to the market each month to try Bunch's recipes and reports her children loved the vegetable soup during their most recent visit.
“This is something we can try at home. Even my husband likes it,” she said.
Bunch says the idea is not only to provide food to needy families but to encourage them to eat healthy.
“Ideally, fruits and vegetables should take up half of the plate,” Bunch advised. “We help families of all ages by distributing food and by providing healthy recipes, food tasting and nutrition information.”
Burgin says she enjoys trying out fruits and vegetables that are not familiar to her.
“The vegetables and fruit here were way better than I expected. I expected things that had been put aside, but all of it was very fresh. I honestly wouldn’t buy a honeydew at the store, but my kids and my husband love it,” she said.
EDUCATION IMPROVING DIETS
Bunch says the educational aspect of the program is improving the way families eat.
“They’re getting foods that are out of the realm of what they usually purchase,” Bunch explained. “They’re able to try fruits and vegetables that they haven’t tried before. And it’s more enjoyable, because the environment is more of a farmers’ market setting than just a food give-away event.”
Hernandez says response from area families has been very good.
“They love it,” she said. “For families on a limited income, fresh produce is usually not at the top of their shopping list, and this program connects them to fresh food.”
While the Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition (ICAN) lessons are offered at no cost to limited-resource adults and children and funded by the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, long range funding for the free market may need additional assistance if it is to be continued.
Hernandez would like for Produce to People to become a permanent event, and hopes volunteers and donations will continue to make the program possible.