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U.S. Department of Agriculture launches initiatives for more healthy school meals

Antoni Shkraba

In New Mexico, one in five children face hunger, making the state second in the nation for food insecurity in youth. In the Kids Count report, New Mexico ranked 48 in economic well-being and 50th in education. That’s coupled with the fact that the state has seen persistent dismal education rankings and outcomes for students.

However, this past week the federal government unveiled new grants and funding to bolster children’s health so they can perform well in school.

Using federal pandemic dollars, schools nationwide provided free breakfast and lunch to all students for over two years. But that ended last summer. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $60 million dollars in grants and a proposed rule that would expand support and access to school meal programs by providing breakfast and lunch at no cost. The funds would also support efforts to help local growers sustain school meal programs.

This comes as the New Mexico Legislature passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rightsthat provides students free breakfast and lunch regardless of their income.

Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the U.S. Agriculture Department says, with these new grants there will be a partnership between New Mexico and the federal government to get more community schools to qualify for federal assistance, while taking that pressure off of the state’s budget.

"We know that when youngsters receive a good meal at school they have a tendency to be better students," Vilsack said. "They also have healthier outcomes. So it’s a combination of better health, better educational outcomes, and a good nutritious meal."

Applications are now open nationwide for $10 million dollars in grantsto provide nutrition education to students, parents and caregivers and other school stakeholders. The state and individual school districts can apply.

The application is due in late May.

Vilsack also spoke with KUNM about USDA initiatives to connect schools and local producers.

SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: [We have] a grant that we're making under our healthy meals initiative, to Boise State University, which is going to be dealing with a number of other partners in providing additional assistance to school food authorities, to try to figure out how to better link what they're serving to youngsters with what can be purchased and produced locally — $16.1 million benefit going to this university that's going to work within seven regions in the West.

And the goal here is to better link local food producers with local schools, so that kids not only have a nutritious meal, but they also have one that is being provided to them, in part from folks who grow and raise crops in the area.

KUNM: And I want to talk a little bit about community actually helping our schools get these healthy meals and New Mexico does have a very strong agricultural community. Would these grants allow those local farmers to apply to get food they grow into those schools? 

VILSACK: Well, this is really designed to assist in that. But there's also a program that the Department of Agriculture is working with states across the country to encourage more local purchasing of school foods. And we've provided resources to states through a series of grants to enable more school districts to have more capability to do that.

We also have what is called a Farm to School Program, which essentially provides resources to states to provide to schools so that they better understand how to make the connection between themselves and the local producers and how to create the kind of contracts and arrangements that will result in more quantity of food being purchased, locally. We want to create a stronger link between this local producers in the local school districts and we want to create a stronger local and regional food system. This is all part of it.

KUNM: And another portion of the grant program would be expanding nutrition education. What does this mean exactly? How can having nutrition education help our students with those educational outcomes you were speaking of before?

VILSACK: Well, essentially what this does is it really provides school nutrition officials with better understanding of essentially how to put together nutritious meals and nutritious foods available to students not just in terms of a school lunch and school breakfast program. But it is designed to apply as well to after school programs that may be administered by the school. So the snacks that are provided after school, there are some schools that are providing dinner and supper options. There are also schools that are obviously a series of sports teams. And we want to make sure that as the coaches, people who are coaching these young people understand the direct link between proper nutrition and performance not only in the classroom, but also on the athletic field, if you will, so it's providing information and nutrition information and advice so that as coaches, as after school programs, as school lunch and school breakfast officials figuring out the menus and figuring out what to purchase, they understand what will work best for children.


USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives

USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision

Comment on the Community Eligibility Provision proposed rule

This coverage is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners.

Taylor is a reporter with our Poverty and Public Health project. She is a lover of books and a proud dog mom. She's been published in Albuquerque The Magazine several times and enjoys writing about politics and travel.
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  • A bill that would provide free, healthy meals to all New Mexico school kids passed the state Senate over the weekend. KUNM has more on some of the changes that were made as the legislation reached the full chamber.
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