Roadrunner Food Bank distribution event at EXPO New Mexico. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
As the start of the next school year approaches, schools in New Mexico are preparing to hand out free meals to all students after the Legislature unanimously passed a bill that would ensure all students have access to food in school, joining four other states in making universal meals a permanent policy.
About three-quarters of all students in New Mexico qualified for free and reduced lunch before the law passed in a state that also sees the highest percentage of food stamp usage in the country – a dismal picture of a lack of food security in the state.
New Mexico’s senior senator Martin Heinrich joined fellow Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), as well as U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) to introduce a bill that would bring universal meals to all public schools in the U.S.
The bill comes at a catalyzing moment for universal meals as two states recently passed such measures in their legislatures, and a third, in North Dakota, narrowly failed on a party-line vote.
Prior to the push for universal school meals, participation in the free and reduced school meal program more than doubled between 2014 and 2018 nationwide, according to a release from Heinrich’s office. The pandemic exacerbated food insecurity with many schools participating in free meal distribution for all families and kids to keep students fed and help maintain their focus in school. track.
COVID-19 protections and policies have mostly ended, so Heinrich’s office said it wants to support the success of free meals.
“We know that when children are hungry, it impacts everything, including their ability to focus and learn in the classroom. No child should go hungry — especially not in the richest nation on Earth,” said Heinrich, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing USDA nutrition programs.
Jennifer Ramo agrees. She is the director of New Mexico Appleseed, a group working to address poverty in the state.
“One of the best tools out there to get children’s bodies and brains ready to learn is free school meals,” Ramo said. “It gives them the nutrition they need and takes the worry away of having to pay for those meals
Heinrich’s office said it would likely fund the effort through mandatory funding that already exists for school meals, but using infrastructure investment money is not out of the question.
Supporters of the bill, like New Mexico Appleseed, say the legislation is a “humanitarian necessity.”
Ramo sees the opportunity right now to leverage “federal educational investments otherwise lost to children who are too hungry to focus.”
If passed, the bill stands to save New Mexico $40 million annually, the amount allotted for the state’s universal meals program.
Similar to New Mexico’s law,, the Universal School Meals Program Act would incentivize schools and districts to partner with local vendors to bring in nutritious food.
The federal bill would give schools a 30 cent incentive per meal.
Heinrich’s office said that small businesses did not express concern during the outreach process of being at a disadvantage compared to larger ones. The New Mexico Public Education Department said it’s “not uncommon” for very small businesses to partner with local schools.
Local advocates hope the incentives can bolster low-income communities economically by bringing new opportunities to neighborhood businesses.
“Many of our local business owners have kids in school,” said Miguel Acosta, co-director of Earth Care, which primarily focuses on the environment and equity in Santa Fe’s Southside. “When they are successful, then their kids are successful. It creates levels.”
In New Mexico, a business can become a part of the New Mexico Grown Program, the pipeline between local businesses and schools, at any time by participating in the Approved Supplier Program, a food quality and safety program requisite.
Economic fallout from the pandemic and new hardships continue to strain families. Inflation remains high and many saw their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits slashed. Parents told Source NM that their food stamps only cover half of what they’re used to.
“Not even Walmart is affordable anymore,” said Gladys Recinos, a parent in the Southside of Santa Fe.
Meanwhile, donations are slumping at food banks, which are also being affected by high food costs, demand remains high and COVID-19 infection is hampering the number of volunteers they have on hand.
“When food costs are so high, that dollar isn’t stretching anymore,” said Sherry Hooper, executive director of the Food Depot in Santa Fe. “We are feeling the challenge and it’s impeding our ability to help because we’re also paying such high prices.”
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