Editor’s note: This is the latest in the food and hunger series, written in honor of National Hunger Action Month.

September is National Hunger Action Month — and school is in full swing. This time last year, one of the major policy conversations was about testing, standards and accountability. What a difference a year makes. The pandemic has torn back the veil on structural and systemic issues that drive poverty, hunger, and impact learning outcomes.

According to a report recently released by Feeding America, 1 in 3 children statewide does not have enough nutritious food to eat, up from 1 in 4 before the pandemic hit. Moreover, in 2020, 434,540 New Mexico residents were food insecure, up from 315,990 in 2018.

But, it would be a mistake to look only at statistics, compelling as these are. We need to look at the long lines at the drive-thru food pantries and hear the desperate stories of hungry people. Some of these people have never before had to ask for food, but in this pandemic, they have lost work, used their savings and are now anxiously — and sometimes tearfully — waiting in food distribution lines.

What toll does this take on children and families? It means high levels of physical and emotional stress from worrying about where the next meal is coming from, often in addition to worrying about not being able to pay rent and fear of eviction.

Physicians and people in the field call this kind of stress “toxic stress,” to distinguish it from normal hassles. And toxic stress exacts a high price in terms of overall health. Bodies and minds that must function in stressed conditions without enough fuel are bodies and minds at increased risk of illness and injury.

Hunger exacts a toll on learning. Hungry and stressed children are not only less healthy, they are less ready to learn. Children — and adults, for that matter — do not function at their best or feel good when they’ve skipped a meal or only snacked on nutrition-poor food. Moreover, there is mounting evidence that childhood hunger leads to a higher risk of multiple health problems in adulthood, including depression, interpersonal violence, premature aging and poor academic achievement.

What should be done about this? Even before the pandemic, our governor had mobilized her Cabinet and emboldened advocates to approach hunger in a transformational way. We must use the public policy levers at hand to address the immediate needs of hungry children and families, including:

Using state and federal resources to aid food banks, pantries and shelters as they respond to the hunger relief needs of our communities;

Funding for school meals, feeding options for whole families and flexibility in food distribution.

Increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps) supports, increasing outreach, and reducing red tape for enrollment and reenrollment.

New Mexico must also continue to address root causes of food insecurity: namely, income insecurity. The number of people seeking hunger relief so quickly after this economic shutdown indicates many people have jobs that don’t pay enough to make ends meet.

In addition, we New Mexicans need to continue supporting The Food Depot, the New Mexico Association of Food Banks and other hunger-relief organizations.

Food policy is foundational to education policy. Health is a building block of education. Children’s bodies and minds cannot function at their best without the requisite nutrients and energy. Further, childhood hunger is associated with poor health outcomes well into adulthood. We can and must offer our children the chance to live up to their fullest potential. Let’s use National Hunger Action Month to help our children get the food they need to focus, engage and benefit from the lessons available to them through school.

Lilly Irvin-Vitela is president and executive director of New Mexico First and a member of the Public Policy and Advocacy Committee of The Food Depot, Northern New Mexico’s Food Bank. Dr. Bret Smoker is a family physician and public health professional with more than three decades of experience in Northern New Mexico.

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