Bill to provide free school meals for every New Mexican child advances
Lawmakers have advanced a substitute bill that would provide free breakfast and lunch to New Mexico school kids. Some legislators are skeptical about the price tag and whether the state can afford it in years to come. But supporters say this bill could keep thousands of kids from going hungry.
The Healthy Universal School Meals Act introduced by Democratic Senators Michael Padilla and Leo Jaramillo would give all public and charter school students free access to breakfast and lunch regardless of family income. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this was one of her priorities in her state of the state address.
"Right now, too many kids are forced to learn on an empty stomach, which is why I’m calling for healthy, and universal, that means free meals for every student in the state of New Mexico."
Senate Bill 4 would use $30 million every year from the general fund beginning in July. It’s part of a larger initiative from the governor’s office that includes more than $75 million to build a food system that grows, transports, and serves food to New Mexcans who need it the most.
About 71% of New Mexican students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. A family of four with a $36,000 maximum income can qualify for free school meals.
With record revenues, in large part due to oil and gas production, the biggest concern is whether that state can afford to support this bill in the future.
Local school officials and some lawmakers expressed their opposition saying as more schools participate, the amount of money in the bill will get smaller.
Jenny Ramo is executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, which has worked on numerous initiatives to curb child hunger in the state. She said this program can actually bring more money to the state by leveraging federal dollars.
"More kids are eating, that means more federal money is coming in," said Ramo "Because even if you're a student that doesn't qualify for any help, the federal money still comes in for you."
Ramo also challenges the idea that the state will run out of funds.
"We will always have money. And it's just a matter of prioritizing how it's spent. And once they start to see the benefits of this program, it will be prioritized as something that we need to fund."
A 2017 study from the Society for Research in Child Development found that kids who experienced food insecurity in their first five years of life are more likely to lag behind in social, emotional and cognitive skills when they begin kindergarten.
Marie Johnson is president of the New Mexico Student Nutrition Association who said children must be nourished in order to learn effectively.
"Children who are experiencing hunger cannot concentrate to learn," said Johnson. "So making sure that every child can have breakfast when they come in and lunch, it has to happen."
Johnson is also a student nutrition program coordinator at the Farmington Area Public Schools and has seen children going hungry during the school day.
"It's heart wrenching to know and the stories are too painful to share some of the situations that I have encountered firsthand, it's real."
Kendall Chavez is the food and hunger coordinator for the Governor’s office and said a focus should be on providing locally grown food to children.
"Supporting our local farmers, ranchers and food businesses and elevating school food as something that's as important as the books that our kids are reading while they're in school," Chavez said
The emphasis on healthy food is getting a boost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which recently proposed new nutrition standards for school meals, including the first limits on added sugars.
The state is partnering with FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that puts service members into schools to teach food education. Alicia Chavez is with the group’s New Mexico team, where she teaches the importance of culturally relevant foods.
"And not just food that's from New Mexico. We have cultures that are represented from across the world," said Chavez. "And so it would be culturally relevant to some students and a learning moment for others which would just create more worldly students."
She added that students should learn how to grow their own food.
"Sometimes that looks like creating, sustaining and maintaining school gardens alongside the students and community members."
Johnson said the New Mexico School Nutrition Association also sought input from a key constituency — the kids who eat the meals.
"All you have to do is ask and the kids will be more than happy to share what they like and what they don't like."
SB 4 passed unanimously by the Senate Education Committee and heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.