School lunches

Free or reduced-price school lunches can be an important part of a child's nutritional program. But a new report raises concern about the summer vacation months, particularly across the Southwest, where New Mexico ranked as having the highest rates of childhood hunger and California came in 12th. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

TUCSON -- Children in the Southwest are especially vulnerable to hunger, according to a new study ranking New Mexico as having the highest rates of childhood hunger in the nation.

New Mexico is the most food-insecure state for youths in the nation, according to a report by Feeding America, a hunger relief charity and network of more than 200 food banks in the nation.

Arizona ranked third for childhood hunger, with Nevada at eighth place, Texas at ninth and California at twelfth.

As the summer months approach, just a fraction of the children will receive the free or reduced-price lunches that they normally get when school is in session, the study points out.

About 30% of the 512,460 children in New Mexico suffer from hunger, according to the report, which looked at data from the Consumer Population Survey and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Also, many of the country’s highest rates of childhood hunger are concentrated in counties throughout the Southwest, according to the study. For instance, Los Angeles came in first with nearly 27% of its children living in food-insecure situations. Harris County in Texas ranked third and Maricopa County in Arizona came in at fifth.

An estimated 17 million children live in food-insecure households by having limited or no access to nutritional and safe foods, according to the study, which said the problem is growing in rural areas.

Although the study didn’t give a direct reason hunger rates are so high in the Southwest, the region has been slow to recover from the last economic downtown.

The study did point out that hunger is exacerbated in rural areas because of transportation difficulties in accessing food program sites.

Also, the organization said Native Americans and Latino children have some of the highest rates of hunger in the nation. These are all populations that are well-represented in the Southwest region.

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cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Twitter: @thecindycarcamo