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Meal distribution launches in NM with help from the National Guard

Trinity Salazar, 7, gets a free breakfast from Mary Avila, a school cook at Whittier Elementary School, on Monday morning. Trinity was taken to the school by her grandma, Carol Salazar. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal) ^^^^^^^^^^^ Mary Avila, a cook at Whittier Elementary, walks to a car to hand out a free breakfast Monday morning. The school prepared 300 lunches and 300 breakfasts for every kid in need while schools are closed. (Roberto E Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

This story has been updated with the latest numbers from APS 

When the governor ordered schools to shut down for three weeks to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the expectation was that New Mexico’s schoolchildren would still be fed.

On Monday, the first day of the closure, school districts across the state launched grab-and-go meal programs – some getting help from the National Guard – to make sure that expectation was met.

Nine school districts faced the major hurdle of a lack of food supplies. Students in these districts were supposed to be on spring break at this time and schools weren’t prepared to feed them.

Mary Avila, a cook at Whittier Elementary in SE Albuquerque, walks toward a car to hand out a free breakfast Monday morning. The school prepared 300 lunches and 300 breakfasts to supply kids in need of nutrition now that schools are closed. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

That equated to 20,835 students who needed food in these districts, according to State Public Education Department spokeswoman Nancy Martira.

She said the department made an emergency food order and called in the National Guard to get those meals to these districts, which ranged from Texico Municipal Schools on the Texas border to Quemado Schools more than 300 miles away.

The National Guard delivered the food Sunday night and Monday morning, dropping off parcels to school districts in Roswell, Bloomfield, Texico, Melrose, Quemado, Silver City, Estancia, Socorro and Santa Fe.

“The New Mexico National Guard is prepared for disaster and emergency preparedness, and distributed the food via trucks,” Martira said.

Santa Fe Public Schools’ spring break was planned for March 16-20 and no food was on hand. But through the emergency food order and delivery, the district distributed 139 breakfast meals and 720 lunches, according to Gabe Romero, SFPS executive director of operations.

All children under 18 – whether they attend a Santa Fe public school or not – can get food at seven sites.

Romero said the locations were chosen to spread out the distribution. The percentage of students at the schools receiving free and reduced meals was also a factor.

“There were no difficulties; the district had plenty of capacity (and) no one was turned away,” Romero said.

He said Santa Fe has about 12,000 meals immediately available, with roughly 1,700 at each site.

Superintendent Veronica Garcia said in a statement that she was grateful the governor and the PED made the meals happen.

Santa Fe will continue to provide meals at the seven sites on weekdays throughout the closure.

Martira said 77,713 New Mexico students who were scheduled to be on spring break received food on Monday.

Waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are primarily funding the grab-and-go meals during school closures.

The USDA will reimburse the costs of breakfasts and lunches for schools that have at least half of their population qualifying for free and reduced lunch, according to PED.

Martira said 95% of students in the state attend a school that qualifies for the USDA reimbursement.

Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta said all of the funding for its 89 meal sites is provided by the USDA meal program.

APS was prepared to serve about 12,000 meals and ended up giving out 7,803 meals by mid-day Monday, serving a total of over 9,000 meals.

Armenta said some excess plates were picked up by homeless shelters.

“Each school put in a request for meals based on estimated need, but we have flexibility to deliver more food to any site if needed,” Armenta said.

Like Santa Fe, all students, whether or not they attend an APS school, are able to get breakfast and lunch.

There are 89 sites – chosen based on greatest need – across the district that are serving the meals.

For meal site information across New Mexico, the state has launched a webpage with feeding plans and hours of distribution by district during the closure:

About 15 minutes before the pickup site closed, food service manager Rocio Quezada said Whittier Elementary School, one of the pickup locations in southeast Albuquerque, had served an estimated 50 bundles of breakfast and lunch.

Whittier had a drivable loop where families could pull up to the side of the building and get food without coming into the building.

Armenta said the number of meals being distributed is expected to go up as the closure continues and APS plans to serve meals until schools re-open.

Fares on all ABQ RIDE buses are waived for students 18 or younger in an effort to help families get to the APS meal sites, according to the city of Albuquerque. Free rides started Monday and will last until APS schools are back in session.

“Students do not have to go to the school they attend to receive their meals. They only have to access the school site most convenient to them,” Danny Holcomb, Transit Director, said in a statement. “Our buses can pick up these students and families closest to where they live and get them to the closest participating site.”

Students are tentatively scheduled to go back to school April 6.

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