The following is an excerpt of Mark Winne’s keynote speech delivered in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the New Mexico Hunger Summit on July 17, 2014

Like most of you, I’ve come to this gathering to ask the question that no one has yet succeeded in answering: How do we end hunger in New Mexico?

I’m one of those people who has attended countless gatherings across this state, and through my national work, in almost every state in the country, to ask the same question: how in a country as wealthy as ours do we continuously fail to find a solution to food insecurity and hunger?

In the fall of 2003, I stood on a stage very similar to this one at another hotel in Albuquerque. The occasion was then-Governor Richardson’s Hunger Summit, a gathering attended by about 300 people. That summit, by the way, was precipitated by USDA statistics that found New Mexico ranked number one in the U.S. in food insecurity.

The story I told then is the same one I’ll tell today. We must shift our attention from only addressing the symptoms, namely hunger and food insecurity, and stop ignoring the disease, namely poverty. We must emphasize the quality of food over the quantity in recognition of the severity of the obesity crisis before us. We must work together in a truly collaborative fashion, which means we each have to put aside something for the greater good. We must hold government accountable, no matter which party is in office. We must fight for a living wage for all workers.  And we must ask ourselves hard questions about our own programs and organizations: just because we’ve been doing things one way for the past 20 years doesn’t mean we should do them the same way forever.

The report that came out of that 2003 Hunger Summit was startlingly clear, comprehensive, and held real promise for change. Its recommendations called for:

  • A unified approach to ending hunger that involved state agencies and non-governmental stakeholders
  • The continuation of a Hunger Task Force, the body that wrote the report
  • The development of a sustainable statewide food system that emphasized community based solutions and statewide networking
  • Higher participation in all federal nutrition programs
  • Improvement in the quality of food and the nutritional environment throughout New Mexico
  • An increase in the knowledge and skills necessary to choose and prepare healthy food
  • And lastly, it reminded everyone that food banks and pantries were not intended as long term solutions to hunger; they should refocus their efforts on services that help people exit poverty.

What became of these recommendations? Believe it or not, many concretes steps were taken:

  • Working with state officials, the Hunger Task Force simplified the food stamp application to help increase enrollment
  • A food stamp outreach campaign began
  • Summer meals and school breakfast received more promotion, attention, and financial support
  • Seniors received a small state-funded supplement to their small monthly food stamp allotment.

While not direct outcomes of the Task Force’s work, numerous indirect results can be linked to it including:

  • Better access to farmers’ markets by the state’s lower income shoppers
  • The formation of the NM Food and Agriculture Policy Council and four local food policy councils
  • Elimination of junk food from most public schools making New Mexico one of the first states to do so
  • Expansion of Cooperative Extension Services to tribal communities
  • Expansion of farm to school activities to almost half of New Mexico’s 345,000 school children.

But what else has happened since the 2003 Summit?

Well, the Task Force itself dissolved leaving New Mexico without a single, unified voice to oversee the implementation of the report’s recommendations. Why? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen different answers: lack of trust between members, lack of political will, and poor leadership that fluctuated between weak and overbearing, and finally, a lack of community engagement and too much reliance on a professional elite.

What else happened?

  • Well, food insecurity went from 14% to over 15% from 2002 to 2012, and very low food security, or hunger, grew from just under 4% to almost 6%.
  • Nationwide, SNAP participation soared to 48 million from 27 million people in 2007
  • State government, once a strong partner for ending hunger, backed away from that commitment. Recently, the New Mexico Law and Poverty Center documented that almost 13,000 New Mexicans are forced to wait over a month for food and Medicare benefits because the NM Department of Human Services is not processing applications fast enough.
  • Food banks didn’t shrink, they grew, expanding into ever larger facilities.
  • And obesity soared, eclipsing hunger as the state’s number one public health threat. According to the NM Dept. of Health, 20% of the state’s third graders are obese and 15% are overweight. Exposing the deep racial and ethnic disparities that exist in New Mexico, the figures reveal that 30% of the state’s American Indians third graders are obese; for Hispanics the rate is 23%, but for white children it is only 13%.

The hunger of the overfed and the hunger of the underfed cry out for our attention daily, and the perils of global food insecurity and the limits to our earth’s natural resources rarely escape our notice.

When I reflect on our efforts to end hunger I’m reminded of a Chinese proverb, one version of which goes like this: A powerful warlord was leading his army of warriors, horses and chariots down a country road when he came upon an old monk. The warlord asked the old man how long it will take his army to get to Beijing. The monk looked up at the warlord and told him that it will take him forever since he is going the wrong way. The warlord said, “Posh! My horses are the fastest in the land and my chariots are swift.” “With all due respect, Your Lordship,” replied the monk, “you are going the wrong way so you’ll never get there.” Now getting angry, the warlord shouted, “Disrespectful old fool! My army is the strongest and I am the boldest warrior in all of China!”  With that the monk said, “That may be true, your horses and chariots may be swift, and your army may be the mightiest, but you will never get to Beijing going this way.” With that, the warlord struck the monk with his whip as his horses and men charged off in the same direction.

As much as we must insist that our state and federal food programs are working well and are adequately funded, we must also engage the economic injustices and disparities that tragically underlie hunger. Without that kind of effort, we will never make it to Beijing.

Consider our food chain workers who pick, process, and prepare our food. They make up 15% of the U.S. workforce, the largest single occupational category. They have a median wage of only $9.65 per hour and only 13% receive a living wage. The vast majority of these workers are people of color. We depend on them for our survival yet they are paid so little they are eligible for food stamps one and a half times more frequently than all other workers.

This is but one feature of America’s single greatest socio-economic travesty: the yawning gap between the affluent and everyone else.

  • Because the top 1% of income earners in the U.S. control 40% of the wealth compared to 10% in 1973, everyone in this room must struggle harder to reduce the impact of those disparities on the people you serve.
  • It is why, according to the Institute of Medicine that among the 17 most developed nations, Americans have the lowest life expectancy, the highest poverty rate, spend the most for healthcare and receive mediocre results.
  • And it is why, when I interviewed a county food stamp director in New Mexico, I was told that food stamp applications were soaring even though the unemployment rate was 2%. Why? Because the county’s biggest employers were Wal-Mart stores.

Food insecurity in this country would virtually disappear if all Americans earned a living wage, which some cities are trying to set at $15 per hour. I’m proud to be from Santa Fe which, at $10.65/hour, has one of the highest mandated wages in the country.

Getting behind a new national minimum wage of at least $10.10 per hour is something we all must do. That would immediately lift three and a half million Americans out of poverty. We can no longer let business off the hook any more than we can let government off the hook.

With respect to the role of charity in addressing hunger, the Special Rapporteur for the United Nations Olivier De Schutter said that, “Food Banks should not be seen as a ‘normal’ part of a national safety net. They are charity-based, not rights-based, and they should not be seen as a substitute for the robust social safety nets to which each individual has a right….Governments should not be allowed to escape their obligations because private charities make up for their failures.”

To those who say that New Mexico does not have sufficient wealth to fight poverty, and therefore must tolerate high rates of poverty, I say poppycock. If enough of us speak up and fight for justice, a political leader of sufficient courage will one day rise with us to make the change we need a reality.

Returning to the subject of obesity, the simple, sad fact before us is that obesity will kill more New Mexicans than food insecurity and hunger. If we are not making quality, nutritious food a significant part of our response to hunger, we’ll stay on the wrong road to Beijing.

We must make healthy food the easy choice all the time: in school, at home, in the marketplace and workplace, on the road, at food pantries, at playgrounds and football games.

Cooking with Kids programs such as the ones in Albuquerque and Santa Fe must be expanded to every school district and school age child in New Mexio. 

Like the WIC program, SNAP must do more to encourage the consumption of healthy food and discourage the consumption of unhealthy food such as sugary soft drinks. Yes, there is more SNAP Education funding and flexibility, but taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize unhealthy eating or the soda industry as it does now through monthly benefits.

And when Michele Obama said she’ll go to the mat to fight the Republican proposal to slow down the increase in healthier food in our schools, I say “Go Michele! I’m with you.” Three-quarters of New Mexico’s school food services implemented the new, healthier food regulations well in advance of the July 1 deadline. All the others should do so immediately.

Physical activity whether through safe street programs, walking, biking, and more places to play must be connected to these efforts as well. Mom and dad, unplug your children’s electronic devices, hide the batteries, and send the kids outside to run, ride, and play.

Finally, as I said before, the problems before us are too big for any one agency or non-profit organization to tackle. They are too big for any one government, even the State of New Mexico, to solve. We need a truly collaborative effort that is well-funded, well-led, and well-organized. It won’t be a place for big egos or self-serving organizations. It will be a place where you check your six-shooters at the door and work for the common good.

New Mexico has an excellent Food and Agriculture Policy Council. Perhaps it can incorporate a more comprehensive approach to ending hunger into its work.

We also need a plan. Cities, states, and countries are developing longer term food strategies, food plans, and charters. These actions are engaging citizens like never before in the policy making process.

Edmonton, Alberta committed $1 million to a process that engaged over 3,000 citizens in developing a food plan. On one occasion 700 Edmonton residents turned out at a public hearing about the proposed plan.

Michigan has a food charter, and the Santa Fe Food Policy Council is putting the finishing touches on a food plan for the city and county.

What this organized commitment to food planning represents is a kind of communal responsibility taking, a recognition that we all have a stake in our food system.

Continuing down the wrong road to Beijing is no longer an option. Carving out your own turf to only serve your own programmatic objectives is a disservice to your clients. Large business sectors that exploit workers, and governments that turn their backs on the poor can no longer be tolerated.

So unless you want to hear me say the same thing at the 2024 New Mexico Hunger Summit, we better get started. We’ve got 10 years to make it right. Let’s do it, New Mexico!

Thank you.