In managing restaurants and personal training in gyms, Laurie Allocca’s first jobs were at the intersection of food and health.

After earning a degree in early childhood education, the importance of nutrition became a career.

“Nutrition was always near the center of what I was doing, even when I was waiting tables and managing restaurants or as a fitness instructor,” Allocca said. “In those other jobs, I saw there’s nothing more important than healthy food.”

This week, the nutrition services manager at the New Mexico School for the Deaf is representing the state at the School Nutrition Association 48th Legislative Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

Allocca is the first member of New Mexico’s branch of the School Nutrition Association to be awarded the Josephine Martin National Policy Fellow scholarship, which annually provides one of the organizations 55,000 members a scholarship to the event.

The conference brings together 900 child nutrition professionals and offers the chance to meet with members of Congress about the policies that impact school cafeterias nationwide.

“Laurie is a go-getter,” said Pauline Raia, executive director of the New Mexico branch of the School Nutrition Association. “That’s who we want advocating in front of our legislators.”

Allocca moved to New Mexico in 1993 and taught fitness classes at Santa Fe Community College and the Genoveva Chavez Center. After working as a health and nutrition coordinator for Santa Fe County’s Head Start program, she traveled around the state as a health educator, assisting school districts with their foods programs for the Public Education Department.

In 2015, Allocca started at New Mexico School for the Deaf, which enrolls day students and can also house up to 96 students on campus.

“Boarding school can be a different dynamic,” said Jodi Stumbo the school’s physical education and health teacher. “You’re around the kids more. You can become than just a teacher or a coach and be a surrogate parent in a lot of ways.

“For all our kids and especially those living on campus, I think Laurie is really smart and creative about setting our kids up from success here and with their habits for the rest of their lives.”

Stumbo said students are often late to her her first-period class while carrying breakfasts. Lunch is in the cafeteria and Allocca often serves family-style dinners for the boarding students to take back to their cottages, which usually house four or five students.

Earlier this month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 10, which appropriates $650,000 to the Public Education Department to eliminate copays of 30 cents or 40 cents per meal for about 12,500 students statewide who qualify for federal reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.

In Washington, D.C., this week, Allocca said she wants to encourage Congress to expand on that effort. “I want to see universal free school meals. That’s my goal for what I really want in this country. Not just reduced-priced lunches but breakfasts and lunches and dinner if they need that too,” Allocca said. “It’s the very least we can be doing to give kids a chance to learn and grow and be kids.”