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Proposed bill would increase access to free school meals for Native children

Maize has been a fundamental source for Native Americans that still offers nutritional benefits.
Maize has been a fundamental source for Native Americans that still offers nutritional benefits.

Native Americans experience food insecurity is much higher rates than others in this country. Now members of the state’s congressional delegation have introduced a federal bill to help Native children at the risk of going hungry by providing them free nutritious meals. The legislation would also give tribal entities a say in what their children are eating.

The Tribal Nutrition Improvement Actwas introduced by U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM). It would establish a two-year pilot program through the USDA, awarding funds to 10 Tribal entities that will administer several federal food programs including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and others.

In a press release, Leger Fernandez said too many Indigenous children continue to lack access to affordable and nutritious meals.

The bill also makes Native children automatically eligible for free school meals through tribal enrollment and it adjusts reimbursement rates for schools that are funded by the Bureau of Indian Education and those near reservations.

"We really wanted to make sure that tribal entities could feed the children their own culturally appropriate food," said Jennifer Ramo, executive director for New Mexico Appleseed, which developed the idea for the bill. "The dollars that supported those meals could go to create the micro economies that we would like to see happening in terms of agriculture. So they can pay the farmers and pay the ranchers to provide all those things."

Ramo adds giving children familiar and healthy food tells them they’re seen and valued.

"I think that the opposite is also the truth," she said. "I think when you hand a child a burrito that's not completely defrosted or rancid milk, I think you've told them that you don't care about them and they are told that all day every day. So this is a positive step."

This is the latest iteration of the bill, which has been introduced several times over the last seven years, but did not receive a vote.

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s currently a part of the Local News Fund Fellowship where she will be working with KUNM-FM and NMPBS during her 9-month fellowship where she will gain hands-on newsroom experience. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.
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