SANTA FE – For many New Mexicans, the mention of school meals conjures memories of sloppy joes, potato chips and chocolate milk.
But a bill pushed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that’s nearing final approval at the Roundhouse would provide more funding for school districts statewide who procure local produce and freshly-made meals — while also stipulating they offer free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students.
The measure, Senate Bill 4, passed the Senate on a 35-0 vote last week and cleared its only assigned House committee on Friday without opposition.
“We would much rather want the beans and chile in our area than anything else,” quipped Rep. Tanya Mirabal Moya, R-Los Lunas, at one point during the House Education Committee discussion.
While the initiative could put New Mexico on the national forefront of universal school meals, growing enough fruits, vegetables and other food to satisfy more than 316,000 public school students around the state could prove challenging.
Some local farmers are already preparing, including Alan Brauer, who helps run the Indigenous Farm Hub in Corrales.
Brauer, who was raised on a dairy farm in Maryland, launched the project with former Public Education Department colleague Kara Bobroff during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s grown from there — so to speak — with help from student groups and Native American farmers who lend their expertise as part of a revolving residency program.
He said the farm currently grows crops like chard, onions, potatoes and more, depending on the season, on 17 acres spread over two different plots of land.
“We grow pretty much everything,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s kind of like a grocery store throughout the season.”
The farm currently provides fresh produce to several local schools under a New Mexico Grown program, including the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy and the Native American Community Academy, but he acknowledged expanding operations has already required delivery trucks, refrigerated trailers and more.
“There’s going to be such a need to grow more to meet that demand,” Brauer told the Journal.
He said he has had preliminary discussions with Albuquerque Public Schools officials about the possibility of providing even more produce, but said the scale is daunting.
“We want to make sure the food we grow could end up on kids’ lunch plates,” he said.
Fresh (and free) meals
Specifically, the bill advancing at the Roundhouse requires K-12 public schools establish programs to offer “high-quality meals” — both breakfast and lunch — to all students at no charge.
A formula based on how many meals are served in a year and the federal school meal reimbursement rate would be used to determine basic funding levels.
In addition, the Public Education Department would be tasked with setting rules over the coming year about how local produce and fresh meals would qualify for the additional grant funding.
Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring this year’s bill, said $22.5 million is currently set aside in a state budget bill for implementing the proposal.
Since the school meals requirement would not take effect until July 2025, school districts could make their case to the Legislature during next year’s session about any additional funds that are needed, he said.
“There’s going to be some work that needs to be done,” Padilla told the Journal.
He also acknowledged some school districts do not currently provide healthy meals to students, saying, “We have some truly challenging lunches that are being provided right now.”
The approach proposed by the legislation would incentivise school districts to procure locally-grown produce and freshly-prepared meals, he said, but would still give them the ability to decide what type of meals to provide students.
“We wanted to give them motivation,” Padilla said, adding the bill would not pose an unfunded mandate on schools.
Padilla, who also sponsored a 2017 bill aimed at banning “lunch shaming” over unpaid school meals, also said this year’s initiative could eventually lead to improved state reading and math scores, as students would not be distracted by hunger.
“Do we want to close the achievement gap or not?” he said. “This is one way to do it.”
“Had I had healthier options early on, I probably wouldn’t have had some health issues at age 50,” added Padilla, who said school breakfasts and lunches could be the only full meals some students eat each day.
Limiting food waste
While the school meals bill has drawn little formal opposition at the Roundhouse, it has raised questions.
A fiscal analysis of the proposal says the cost of free meals to all public schools statewide could ultimately cost up to $40 million annually, while also providing schools with higher-income student bodies with the largest average allocations.
Some lawmakers have also voiced concern about free school meals going uneaten.
“I do want food not to be wasted,” said Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, during Friday’s hearing. “That’s a huge concern of mine.”
But Padilla said in response that schools could partner with local food banks to ensure unused meals are still put to good use.
In addition, the bill also seeks to limit food waste by stipulating that students in kindergarten through fifth-grade have at least 20 minutes of seated time to eat their lunches each school day.
New Mexico public school students received free school meals during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to federal funding waivers.
With the federal funding set to expire, state lawmakers approved 2020 legislation that took effect last year and was 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, which she unveiled during a public health summit in Philadelphia last month, 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.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said the measure could help hundreds of thousands of students.
“Kids eat half of their daily calories at school,” she said, “so it’s critical that we make sure the food we’re providing to them is nutritious, too.”