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House committee advances measure to expand free meals

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SANTA FE – A bill that would expand free breakfast to all students in New Mexico’s poorest middle and high schools cleared a hurdle Friday that was posed by Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

Stewart, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, offered an amendment to allow low-income schools to serve breakfast before school instead of at the beginning of the day as the bill requires for middle and high schools in which 85 percent of students are low-income.

Supporters said the amendment would have gutted the bill. Serving breakfast after school starts ensures that all students have access, said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of the poor.

Stewart said she offered the amendment because some teachers told her mandatory breakfast after the start of school would cut into teaching time.

School breakfast for all kids is already required at low-income elementary schools.

“I’ve been accused of not caring for poor kids, but I want to give schools the option,” Stewart said. “I think it’s important we give schools some flexibility.”

The House Education Committee approved the bill without the amendment.

New Mexico is the No. 1 state in the nation in child hunger, according to the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Ramo said older students are more likely to go hungry because not all middle- and high schools serve breakfast and when they do it’s available only to low-income students and that can create a stigma. The bill addresses the stigma issue by providing breakfast to all students.

The proposed law would provide an additional 23,000 students with free breakfast at a cost of $680,000 to the state.

Under the bill, the state would reimburse schools for meal costs not covered by federal reimbursements. The federal government reimburses schools for meals served to children who qualify for free meals and partial reimbursements for meals served to students who qualify for reduced-price meals.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, and Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, sponsored the bill in the House. Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, sponsor the bill in the Senate. The Public Education Department has offered support for the bill.

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