Public school students in New Mexico will soon receive free meals
The smell of chicken nuggets and carrots filled the cafeteria at Piñon Elementary in Santa Fe on Monday as cafeteria workers and lawmakers doled out sauces and green apples for the fourth graders eating lunch.
Starting next school year, no K-12 student in New Mexico will have to pay for their meals as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed SB 4 into law. The bill is an effort to curb food insecurity in a state where almost 73% of students in the state’s public schools use the free and reduced school lunch program.
New Mexico is the fifth state to make universal school meals a permanent policy.
The bill, which received unanimous bipartisan approval, sets out $40 million to give all students healthy meals and incentivize school districts to purchase food from local farmers and vendors.
Lujan Grisham said schools being unable to access public money for meals created a system that prioritized the bottom line, how meals were paid for, as opposed to servicing students that need to eat.
“We had a system of oversight to figure out who was paying for meals and who wasn’t,” she said. “And when we do that in any government system, all you really do is spend more money on less service, less quality and we leave kiddos and families behind.”
Alejandro Najera, a fifth grader at East San Jose Elementary School in Albuquerque who testified in multiple committees in favor of the bill, said healthier, fresher food would make a difference for him and his classmates.
“Every day at my school I see most of the fourth and fifth graders throw away their food because it’s not fresh, it’s not that good, not that many people like it, and other reasons,” he said. “Now that this bill has been passed, I’m pretty sure everyone is going to start eating their lunches more often.”
Lawmakers said they hoped the bill would be a step in closing the student achievement gap in New Mexico.
The landmark Yazzie-Martinez ruling brought this gap to the forefront when a judge ruled that New Mexico’s education system was failing most of its students so badly, it violated their constitutional rights.
Universal school meals will be a boon particularly for families in limbo between not qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program but still use a substantial part of their income on rent and bills as inflation continues to raise prices.
“It’s a chain reaction because if they’re paying a lot for rent, they don’t have enough for food,” said Noemi Sanchez, director of Adelante, which typically works with homeless families at Santa Fe Public Schools. “They’re still trying just to make ends meet.”
The bill signing comes weeks after more than half a million New Mexicans experienced a drop in their monthly benefits as the federal government suspended the pandemic expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Nearly 24% of New Mexicans use these food assistance benefits, the most per capita in the nation.
New Mexico has the third-highest rate of poverty in the nation at 18.4%, far exceeding the national rate of 12.8%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Organizers called free school meals “indispensable” to low-income families, but called on their local and state lawmakers to deliver more aid to organizations working to connect people with food.
The most vulnerable people often don’t go to the government for help, said Edgar Talavera, a member of Earth Care’s Family Leadership Council that advocates for policies to help low-income families, in an interview in Spanish.
“The difficult part for families right now is finding support when they need help,” he said. “The only way some people, especially undocumented immigrants, can get support is to connect with an outside organization.”