By Kathleen Gonzalez
When you walk into the grocery store, food policy is probably not on your mind. But food policy, whether it is federal, state or local, affects which foods you see on the shelves. Policies are simply the rules that govern, in this case, food. These rules can be laws, regulations, or simply, business practices.
That wonderful, organic rainbow chard is governed by federal laws that are enforced by our state Department of Agriculture. The label I check to see what is in that box of granola, how many carbs and how much saturated fat, are regulated by the FDA. The grass-fed beef stew meat for my green chile stew is inspected by the USDA. The state Environment Department inspects the deli where I get my locally-produced goat cheese and my fresh organic beet, carrot, ginger juice. And store policies determine if I can find my favorite certified organic, raw vegan, gluten-free, handcrafted coconut-vanilla-almond snackaroons on the shelf.
Policies are generally enacted to meet some need. Whether that need is to create national organic rules, standardize labels that help us make nutritious food choices, ensure that our meat is fresh and properly processed, guarantee that our food is prepared in a sanitary environment, or cater to a particular clientele.
Generally we go along with the rules and ignore the rule-making process—until we have a need. A good example is the introduction of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) into our food system. Although the manufacturers tell us that these foods are safe, there seem to be a large number of consumers would like to know if the food they are buying contains GMOs.
We’ve all heard of the big fight in California, last fall, over a bill to require labels for foods that contain GMO products. The bill was defeated by a fifty-three percent to forty-seven percent margin. The victory was expensive. Corporate interests spent forty-six million dollars advertising against the bill versus nine million dollars spent by supporters. Similar bills were introduced in five states, including New Mexico, with as many as twenty more states prepared to follow.
Senate Bill 18, the GMO labeling bill introduced by Senator Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) this year, died a quick and fiery death on the floor of the NM Senate. In an unprecedented move, the bill was killed when the Senate voted twenty-three to seventeen not to accept a committee recommendation to pass. However, it looks like corporate interests have seen the handwriting on the wall as they gathered in Washington, DC a week ago to discuss what a national GMO labeling program might look like.
Fresh, healthy food is important to me. I want to see our children, twenty-five percent of whom don’t get enough food at home, get fresh local apples, melons, lettuce, carrots and other fruits and vegetables in their school meals. The New Mexico Food and Ag Policy Council has determined that the best way to insure this will happen is through policy and requests for funding. Senator Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) has led the five-year campaign to get New Mexico grown produce into the schools.
“In these challenging economic times when a quarter of New Mexico’s children are considered food insecure, it is even more important that we meet their nutritional needs through a healthy school lunch that includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Investing in our school nutrition programs to purchase New Mexico-grown produce is a win-win for children and their health as well as New Mexico’s farming families,” Campos says.
Local Corrales farmer Anthony Wagner, of Wagner Farms, is one of many NM farmers that would benefit if the bill is passed. Last year Wagner leased a large plot of land in Los Lunas and grew several thousand pounds of melons. Shauna Woodworth of Farm to Table helped Wagner qualify as a vendor for Albuquerque Public Schools (APS).
Testifying before the Interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee in November, Wagner said that if the schools were willing to buy more, he would plant more. This means more employment and more economic activity in the surrounding community. Wagner was testifying in favor of Senate Bill 80/ House Bill 338 New Mexico Grown Produce in School Meals. The bills ask for 1.4 million dollars in funds for schools to buy fresh local produce for school breakfasts and lunches.
The bills were initiated by the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council (NMFAPC) to meet a need. A need the Council has seen intensify over the past five legislative sessions in which they have proposed this bill. Pam Roy, NMFAPC Coordinator says “There are farmers across the state looking for new markets for their produce, at the same time the new federal Child Nutrition Rules are requiring our schools to serve twice as many fruits and vegetables each day. This bill would help our schools meet the new requirements and expand markets for our New Mexico farmers.”
The New Mexico Farmers Marketing Association (NMFMA) has identified additional needs among the less-fortunate in our communities. These populations have obesity rates as high as fifty percent for children in third grade. Studies suggest that is because high-calorie, high-carb foods cost less than healthy, fresh vegetables.
In House Bill 100/ Senate Bill 219 Develop and Promote New Mexico Farmers Markets, the NMFMA is requesting eighty-five thousand dollars that would fund the New Mexico Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program, a pediatric anti-obesity program being expanded in San Juan, San Miguel, Socorro, and Rio Arriba Counties, where prescriptions are written for healthy food and funds are provided, in the form of vouchers, for the purchase of fresh produce at nearby farmers markets.
This bill would also fund a pilot program creating a network of Community Health Workers to promote farmers markets and fresh food options in the Colonias, on reservations and pueblos, and in other underserved areas of our state. In addition, the funds would support statewide public education and outreach that targets seniors, and WIC and SNAP recipients to promote the purchase of fresh food at farmers markets.
These rules are reflected in our shopping experience. I love walking into a well-run grocery store with a cornucopia of fresh wonderful produce. I get excited by the variety and for seasonal foods to inspire my menus for the week. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to these stores. I used to live on a ranch in northern New Mexico where the nearest grocery store was forty miles away. We were lucky, we grew a huge garden. But many of our neighbors did not garden and, in addition, many of our older neighbors, our vejitos, didn’t drive, so they had to depend on relatives for their groceries.
Data shows that the farther you live from a grocery store the less likely you are to get a recommended number of fruits and vegetables. Almost all the vejitos in my community were diabetic and depended on insulin. You would be hard pressed to see any fresh fruits and vegetables in my neighbors’ homes. But everyone has sodas, ice cream and chips. The NMFAPC recognized this fact, and sponsored legislation that would help our rural communities create the infrastructure to attract grocery stores to their communities. Unfortunately, that legislation didn’t pass. The fact is policy work takes time and commitment. Getting everyone to agree on what needs to be done is a huge challenge. Organizations like the NMFPAC work year after year to get legislation passed. No one does this work alone—it takes partnerships of organizations across the state and the interest, help, action, and participation of citizens like you.
Kathleen Gonzalez is the Communications and Program Coordinator at Farm to Table and a founding member of the New Mexico Food & Agriculture Policy Council. She can be contacted at