SFPS’ Summer Food Program keeps hungry kids fed

by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
June 7, 2016

It was pushing toward 1 p.m. Monday and Donna DeMarco was still cooking hamburgers and hot dogs for a dozen or so kids and their relatives at Franklin Miles Park. It was no ordinary barbecue for family and friends.

DeMarco, who runs the cafeteria at E.J. Martinez Elementary School during the school year, knows what hunger looks and sounds like in a child.

“They’ll say, ‘I didn’t eat today,’ ” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. A lot of people don’t understand that a lot of kids depend on their school breakfast and lunch every day. You just don’t know their situation. Too many are not eating.”

That’s why DeMarco is one of a number of school cafeteria workers who are busy this summer serving free breakfasts and lunches as part of Santa Fe Public Schools’ Summer Food Program. Using money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the district offers the program at 14 schools, plus breakfast only at First Baptist Church on Old Pecos Trail and lunch only at Franklin Miles Park. The program, in its 15th year, costs the public about $288,000.

It offers lunch to up to 1,800 kids a day and breakfast for about 700. Children from 1 to 18 are able to take part in the program, even if they do not attend a public school in the city.

The meals meet standards of the Department of Agriculture for healthy, nutritious food, including fruit, vegetables and milk. That’s also true at the park where the hamburger and hot-dog angle draws kids playing there and serves as an advertisement for the program. Though the free meal program lasts through the end of July at most school sites, it will only run through June 16 at the park.

Christina Gurule has brought at least three of her four grandchildren to the park every day since the program started last week to ensure they eat lunch. “They love it,” she said. “You can’t imagine how many kids in this town go without food. I see them in my neighborhood all the time.”

Her granddaughter, Anjolie, said she loves hot dogs, while her other granddaughter, Amaya, said she hates them.

About 72 percent of the 13,300 students in Santa Fe Public Schools meet federal guidelines for free and reduced-price lunches — an indicator of poverty. The Albuquerque-based nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children recently reported that 28 percent of the state’s children struggle with “food insecurity,” meaning they don’t always know where their next meal will come from.

Nationwide, the Department of Agriculture estimates that 15.3 million children are unable to consistently eat nutritional food. New Mexico is one of four places — along with Mississippi, Arkansas and the District of Columbia — with the highest rates of food insecurity, according to a 2015 Feeding America report.

DeMarco, a mother of four, said that even though both she and her husband work full time, “A lot of people don’t know what a relief it takes off your shoulders to have your children fed every day.”

DeMarco fed about 35 people Monday, a few spilling past the 1 p.m. closing time. “If there’s kids to feed I’m going to stay here and feed them,” she said.

The summer food program also offers meals to adults for $3.50 in cash. Exact change is appreciated, organizers said.

To access a full list of food sites and serving times, visit www.sfps.info and click on Summer Food Service Program link or call the student nutrition department at 505-467-3606.

Copyright 2016, Santa Fe New Mexican (http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/education/sfps-summer-food-program-keeps-hungry-kids-fed/article_be44e4db-4773-553f-a191-a865478ce479.html)