Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday she will push during the upcoming 60-day legislative session to ensure all New Mexico public school students get free school meals, as part of her administration’s push to address chronic poverty across the state.
During a speech at the Bloomberg American Health Summit in Philadelphia, Lujan Grisham said the initiative would be the latest in a series of moves aimed at addressing child hunger and nutrition.
“In New Mexico, starting right now, no one pays for a meal in school,” the governor said. “We are leading the nation in addressing food insecurity.”
She also said the initiative would not feature “pizza slices and chocolate pudding,” adding it would instead involve fresh foods under a state program that encourages schools to contract with New Mexico farmers for fruits and vegetables.
A Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said later Tuesday the proposal would cover the cost of school breakfast and lunch for all K-12 students in New Mexico, regardless of their family income levels.
The initiative will be included in the governor’s budget recommendation, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said. Both the funding request and the proposal itself would require legislative approval.
New Mexico public school students have received free school meals for the past two years thanks to federal funding waivers approved during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the federal funding set to expire, state lawmakers approved 2020 legislation that took effect this year and is aimed at covering the cost of school breakfast and lunches for roughly 57,000 New Mexico students who qualify for reduced-price meals.
But the governor’s initiative would also cover the price of breakfast and lunch for more than 69,000 students who currently do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals, due either to family income levels or because they do not attend schools that offer universal free meal programs under a federal program, Sackett told the Journal.
The exact cost of the initiative was not immediately clear Tuesday, but at least some legislators signaled they would be open to the proposal.
Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said ample funding should be available during the coming year for education-related initiatives, though he expressed concern about large amounts of school meals being discarded after going uneaten.
“There’s a huge amount of waste in our school lunch program,” said Woods, a rancher who is a member of the influential Senate Finance Committee. “It’s hard for me to feel sorry for someone who throws it away.”
He also cited data showing that roughly 80% of New Mexico public school students are already eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to Farm to Table, a group that promotes locally grown agriculture for use in school cafeterias.
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham also touted recent changes to the state’s tax code during her remarks at the Bloomberg American Health Summit, including a child tax credit of up to $175 annually per child, and an expansion of state-funded higher education financial aid.
The Democratic governor said the various initiatives have helped the state’s poverty rate go from the nation’s highest to its third-highest – behind only Mississippi and Louisiana – but added that more work needs to be done.
“I intend for New Mexico to lead the United States in eradicating poverty because, when we eradicate poverty, every single issue that we’re talking about here today gets addressed,” she said during her speech.
Lujan Grisham, who fended off a spirited challenge from Republican Mark Ronchetti to win reelection last month to a second term as governor, has benefitted from record-high revenue levels over the past two years due largely to increased oil production in southeast New Mexico.
While executive and legislative economists are scheduled to release new state revenue estimates next week, projections released this summer estimated state lawmakers would have $2.5 billion in “new” money – or revenue in excess of current spending levels – available for use on public schools, health care and other programs during the budget year that starts in July 2023.
Both the governor and the Legislature will release spending plans in advance of the 60-day session, which begins Jan. 17.