The Española School District took on 11 additional distribution sites for the Summer Food Service Program this year after Rio Arriba County stopped participating due to fiscal issues.
The District’s branch of the nationwide program offers free breakfast and lunch at 27 locations to children ages 1 to 18 no matter where they are from, and with no need to register.
County Parks and Recreation Director Jeremy Maestas said he hoped Rio Arriba could return to the program in the future.
“We were not getting the (attendance) that we were hoping to get,” he said. “It was putting us more in debt.”
Maestas said the County served about 40 percent fewer meals in 2018 than in 2017.
The Lucero Center at 313 Paseo de Oñate and the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos WIC Clinic at 610 Calle Vigil will serve breakfast from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and lunch from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. through July 26, Monday through Friday.
Moving Arts Española at 68 State Road 291 will serve lunch from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. and snacks from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. through July 19, Monday through Thursday only.
A comprehensive list of sites and their active dates and times is available here.
The program is administered by the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department with federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal government reimburses participating organizations but poor attendance can lead to an organization having to cover some costs themselves as the reimbursement is based on meals served, Children Youth and Families Department Summer Food Service Program Director Emiliano Perea said.
The District’s Food Services and Warehouse Manager Patricia Romero, who oversees the program and has participated since the District began a decade ago, said they served more than 8,500 meals in the program’s opening week last week, a massive increase from the first week of 2018.
CYFD Spokesperson Charlie Pabst said last year, the statewide program served more than 1.6 million meals at nearly 700 sites in New Mexico.
A Children, Youth and Families Department administrative review ranked the District highest out of 28 participating organizations reviewed in 2018, based on program compliance, program fluency and performance.
Romero said the District aims to use fresh ingredients and to make items from scratch when possible.
“The cooks put so much love in and care in their food that the kids come and they want to come back,” she said.
About eight cooks begin preparing the meals in bulk Monday through Friday at 6 a.m. at Española Middle School before the food is transported sites including schools, churches and nonprofits, most of which are participating from June 3 to July 26.
Española Middle School Math Teacher James Scott, who is teaching summer school, said the meals impact students’ ability to learn.
“Kids can’t think when they’re hungry,” he said. “I can see a difference between the kid that was here to eat breakfast and the kid who didn’t eat.”
Romero said the meals can also relieve financial stress on families for whom the lapse in the free food and supervision provided during the school year can empty wallets and overfill schedules in the summer.
Even with a massive rise in attendance so far, Romero said she wished more people would take advantage of the meals, citing unawareness of the program and stigma against social programs as factors which keep people away.
“We wish more people would come out, there’s so many sites,” she said. “You don’t even have to tell your name.”
Perea said the District did well at filling the gaps left by the County.
“When the County decided to opt out of the program, I knew we were in trouble,” he said. “I’d really call (Romero) an advocate for the children and the community.”