As free healthy school meals make their way this year to all K-12 public school students in New Mexico, food insecurity isn't slowing down. With pandemic aid programs ending, individuals and families in every county around the state are struggling to stretch their dollars to find and purchase healthy fresh food.
MoGro, a fresh food distribution company based in Albuquerque, has set their sights on improving food equity across the state while supporting the growth and stability of local farmers. The business has grown two-fold over the past three years and is on track to grow further in 2023.
MoGro’s Co-Executive Director Shelby Danilowicz told The Paper. that the nonprofit’s growth in fresh food deliveries doubled between 2019 and 2022. They are set to double the amount of produce delivered again in 2023. While the pandemic contributed to their growth, it was not the main factor that increased their deliveries and support of local farmers and suppliers as a source of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We have gone through a pretty big shift in our programming, highlighted by the pandemic which exacerbated the food insecurity that already existed in New Mexico”, Danilowicz said. “More and more, a lot of folks, organizations and institutions across the state have started to get in touch with us. Our work now runs the gamut from community focused organizations doing grassroots work like the Islamic Center and Three Sisters Kitchen, to larger institutions like CNM’s on campus food pantry that is open to its students every day of the week.”
Between 2019 and 2022 MoGro doubled the amount of food they distribute to those who are challenged with food scarcity, or were doctor’s patients that have been prescribed fresh food and veggies to improve their health.
MoGro’s Beginnings Planted the Equity Seed
Started in 2013, MoGro was founded by Rick Schneiders, former CEO of Sysco foods. Schneiders teamed up with Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health and La Montañita COOP in a concerted effort to bring healthy food to remote rural areas. They outfitted a semi-truck as a single aisle grocery store that was driven around to different Tribal communities in the state.
“There have been a number of iterations since then,” Danilowicz said. “Our work has shifted pretty dramatically in the past few years to how we can work together to get food to our communities, our patients, our clients and students.”
MoGro also works with a number of partner organizations and institutions who have different food access and public health programs. One of MoGro’s current programs is the Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) which targets populations who are on track to get diabetes or developing longer term chronic health issues related to nutrition insecurity. MoGro is in charge of sourcing the prescribed food, packing it and delivering it to hospitals and clinics.
“We work really closely with Presbyterian Community Health on produce prescription programs in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Espanola,” Danilowicz explained. “Basically, physicians are writing prescriptions for healthy food for their patients. A community health worker follows up with the patient and says… ‘Hey, you can get a free bag of food, fresh fruits and vegetables every week. Is that something that you're interested in?’ It’s paid for by the hospital or the health clinic.”
In 2022 MoGro distributed 88,000 pounds of locally grown small scale farmer’s produce. This included $257,500 in purchases from over two dozen local grassroots growers and producers in the Rio Grande corridor from Espanola to Bosque Farms. “Our procurement coordinator texts our farmers and says, ‘Hey, this is how many bags we're going to be packing. What are you all harvesting? How can we kind of play mix and match together?’”
MoGro’s first priority is to source as much local food as possible. Their bags always have local produce supplemented with non-local items as needed. Contracts with their partners cover about 60% of their budget; the other 40% is covered by grants. “We're now distributing an average of 658 eight-pound bags of produce. That’s 5000 to 5500 pounds of food per week,” Danilowicz said.
“Our first priority is to support small scale growers, new farmers, and BIPOC farmers, many of which have been farming in the state for more than three generations. We really want to support and uplift them as much as possible.”
Keeping in mind food safety issues, MoGro tries to be as flexible as possible when sourcing food.
“We have a questionnaire to get a picture of how they're irrigating, how they process food, how they're handling food. We don't require USDA certifications. We really want to make it easier for the small-scale farmers to expand their operations,” Danilowicz explained.
Their main warehouses, walk-in cooler and storage area is located in the Roadrunner Food Bank where they pack their food bags every week on Tuesdays for delivery around the state. Value-added producers that MoGro sources products from regularly are Fano Bread, La Montañita, Heidi’s Raspberry Farm, New Mexico Sabor’s salsa, Sabroso Food’s tortillas, posole and tamales and Three Sisters Kitchen’s food creations. All are Albuquerque-based.
Beyond local sourcing, another key supply partner is the El Paso based Quality Fruit and Veg company that gives MoGro great deals on produce. “This allows us to put together large, robust bags of food every week of the year so that people can really depend on having access to healthy food,” Danilowicz said. She said the goal moving forward is to create more partnerships that will help foster the nonprofit's imminent future growth.
“We're packing more bags than we ever have. And our impact is a lot larger. We're always happy to have a conversation with people that are growing food to figure out if we’re a good match to work together,” Danilowicz said. They are hoping that insurance companies will ultimately work with them once they see the health benefits patients receive from a diet that includes fresh veggies and fruits.
MoGro is also always looking for new partner organizations from small grassroots to large that have ideas about how to get food to their communities. “We're totally open to brainstorming. We're just really looking to expand and are trying to stay as nimble as we can and offer as much support as possible to New Mexicans,” Danilowicz concluded.
Danilowicz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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