Audrey Rowe

ALAMO, RGV – The administrator for the Department of Agriculture’s food and nutrition service says the Rio Grande Valley is the United States’ best kept secret.

Audrey Rowe spoke with admiration for the work being done in Valley schools and colonias in an interview with the Guardian in Little Mexico. She was visiting the large colonia south of Alamo to help kickoff a summer meals program for children.

“There are so many exciting programs going on in the Rio Grande. Now, as I travel around the country, I talk about the Rio Grande Valley being the best kept secret in America. People in the Rio Grande Valley ought to be proud of their elected officials and their schools and their community-based organizations. People really are working to tackle the challenges,” Rowe said.

Asked to elaborate on her claim that great things are happening in the Valley, Rowe said: “When I visit the schools I see incredible things happening. The commitment of the food services directors, the school directors, the expansion in the schools of healthy meals, the redesign of the schools to make them pleasant, the building of school gardens to bring fresh vegetables into the schools. They are willing to push the envelope as far as they can to ensure they have the resources to feed our children.”

Rowe also had praise for colonia groups like ARISE, which helps to empower residents in Little Mexico and Las Milpas.

“We were here about six weeks ago. I wanted to hear more about the colonias because I had heard a lot about them. So, we traveled around the Valley and were able to visit a number of colonias. We came to this program and found they were going to do a summer meal site here. We encouraged them to do a big kickoff, to get the community involved. This is very exciting for me,” Rowe said.

Asked what her perception of colonias was before she visited the Valley and what she has learned about them on her visits, Rowe said: “People had said to me there are colonias all over the state of Texas, in certain areas. I had a description of them that they just kind of rise up and families come together and become communities. I wanted to see how that works and I saw a variety. I saw those that have become stable communities and those that have just popped up where the people have yet to decide how they are going to develop.”

Rowe said the Summer Food Program is a national program. However, she said this year is special in Texas because state officials, working with groups like the Baylor University Texas Hunger Initiative, have recognized the need for more resources. “It is all about partnerships and it is great to see so many groups came together. This year we have a commitment for something like an additional 20,000 more meals for children in Texas. This is a major initiative for the State of Texas.”

According the Baylor University Texas Hunger Initiative, about 40 percent of Valley children are food-insecure. Asked if this is the worst percentage in the nation, Rowe said no.

“Rural areas are where you have the real poverty. This part of Texas, the delta of Mississippi, where I was earlier this week, going up through Kansas City and Missouri, Appalachia, these communities have high food insecurity among children. That is what we as a country need to tackle. We need to make sure there is no child that goes to bed not knowing if they are going to have a healthy meal next day.”

Asked if the United States is doing a better job of making sure its children receive nutritious food, as compared to previous eras, Rowe said no.

“On the issue of hunger among children I do not think we have made a lot of progress. We have not really devoted the resources to address the hunger that children face. When we came into office, that was one of the charges that I received from the administration, that we are going to tackle the issue of child hunger,” Rowe said.

“And, so, we are seeing the numbers get better. We are also seeing the obesity numbers get better. We are putting the resources in and we are building partnerships. That, really, is what will make it work. But, there is always politics. What happens if a new administration comes in. What we want to see is an infrastructure within all of our states so these partnerships can continue and children can be fed.”

Rowe has been on a six-week tour of the Deep South, the Mid West and the West Coast. She said she had saved the best to last. “This is tremendous,” Rowe said, pointing to children at the ARISE community center doing their Zumba dance routines. “I wanted to take a look at all of our programs and to encourage groups like this one to work with us and our partners.”

On Monday evening, Rowe had attended a dinner at the Texas A&M Health Science Center McAllen campus. Officials from Baylor University and Texas A&M University Health Science Center were there to announce a new collaboration with USDA to fight hunger in the Valley.

In her speech at the dinner, Rowe said there was one glaring statistic she wanted to address when she started working for the Obama Administration.

“We have 21 million children on school lunches and ten million on school breakfasts. But, with our summer feeding program there are only 3.5 million children. That is a significant gap. You (Baylor and Texas A&M) are going to help us close that gap. Jeremy’s efforts have been tremendous in helping us look at Texas,” Rowe said.

Rowe was referring to Jeremy Everett, director of the Baylor University Texas Hunger Initiative. Everett spoke at the dinner and also at the ARISE event in Little Mexico.

“No state is feeding more than 15 percent of the children eligible during the summer. We need a commitment from our partners. We need sites in rural locations. We need sponsors. Transportation is an issue,” Rowe said.

Another issue, she said, was getting information out, informing parents and children about the programs that exist. She said USDA is looking at creative ways of delivering meals through the summer, such as meals on wheels. “We have to work more with faith-based organizations, with the churches,” Rowe said.

Rowe added that the goal this year is provide 15 million more meals. “I am excited about seeing the children in the colonias. It is time for us to ensure that in the United States of America no child goes to bed not knowing whether he or she will have a meal the next day. I think we can do that. It is our responsibility, our moral responsibility. I am very excited to be able to work with all of you to make it happen.”