Governor signs free school meals bill, says its benefits could transcend cafeterias - Albuquerque Journal

Governor signs free school meals bill, says its benefits could transcend cafeterias

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham exults during a Monday bill signing Monday for free school meals legislation, as Sens. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, left, and Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, look on. The ceremonial bill signing ceremony took place at Piñon Elementary School in Santa Fe and was attended by dozens of students, teachers and advocates for the legislation, which was approved during this year’s 60-day session without a single “no” vote. (Jon Austria/Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexico might not be the first state to provide free school meals to all K-12 public school students.

But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham insisted Monday, after signing a bill stipulating that free breakfast and lunches be provided on a daily basis, the state’s newest initiative could be the farthest-reaching of its kind in the nation.

In large part, that’s because New Mexico’s approach will provide more funding for school districts statewide who procure local produce and freshly-made meals.

“We really are the lead state when you put all the pieces together,” Lujan Grisham said at a ceremonial bill signing event at Piñon Elementary School in Santa Fe.

“Kids learn better when their stomachs are full and they’re not worried about their next meal,” added the governor, who talked to fourth-grade students, ate freshly-baked bread and hugged cafeteria workers before signing the school meals bill.

However, providing free, healthy meals for more than 316,000 students in New Mexico won’t be easy — and it won’t be cheap.

A state budget bill that’s still awaiting final approval from Lujan Grisham contains $22.5 million for implementing the proposal. An additional $20 million for building and improving school kitchens around the state is included in a separate capital outlay bill that’s also awaiting the governor’s signature.

Even more funding could be needed in future years, the governor said, adding, “high-quality food is expensive.”

But she said the initiative could improve academic outcomes, while also eventually leading to healthier diets.

“It’s going to be the states with universal meals that really make a dent,” said Lujan Grisham, who said she hopes to visit schools where freshly-cooked meals are being eaten by the time she leaves office in 2026.

New initiative could carry hefty future price tag

The legislation signed Monday, Senate Bill 4, was approved by lawmakers without a single “no” vote during the 60-day session that ended March 18.

It puts New Mexico on the national forefront of universal school meals, though at least three other states — Colorado, California and Maine — have also implemented similar permanent initiatives.

While this year’s bill did not generate opposition at the Roundhouse, it did generate debate.

A fiscal analysis estimated the cost of providing free meals to all public schools statewide could ultimately reach $40 million annually, while also providing schools with higher-income student bodies with the largest average allocations.

In addition, some lawmakers voiced concern about free school meals going uneaten.

Alejandro Najera, a fifth-grader at East San Jose Elementary School in Albuquerque, who testified in favor of the bill during the session and also attended Monday’s bill signing event, said he currently only eats about half the meals he gets at school.

He expressed confidence, however, that better-quality meals would lead to a decrease in food ending up in the trash.

“Now that this bill has passed, I’m pretty sure everyone is going to eat their food more often,” Najera said during Monday’s news conference.

Specifically, the bill signed Monday requires K-12 public schools to 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 will be tasked with setting rules over the coming year about how local produce and fresh meals would qualify for the additional grant funding.

While the bill itself takes effect July 1, provisions dealing with food waste and the quality of school meals will not take effect until July 2025, giving school districts more than two years to prepare.

Free school meals a pandemic carryover

Already, 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 in 2021 and was aimed at covering the cost of school breakfasts and lunches for roughly 57,000 New Mexico students who qualify for reduced-price meals.

But the new universal meals initiative will 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.

Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, who was one of the bill sponsors, said he frequently ate school meals while growing up and said his mom is a retired school cook.

“This is a big win for students, for farmers and for everyone in New Mexico,” Jaramillo said.

While New Mexico already has a program linking local farmers to schools, the new initiative could test farmers’ ability to grow enough fruits, vegetables and other food to satisfy increased demand.

But the governor, who unveiled the universal meals plan during a public health summit in Philadelphia in December, said the new law could eventually shift how schools view meals.

“When you’re feeding 300,000 kiddos it’s tricky … But I’d love to see it be all organic, all locally grown and raised, and have students participating in the meal prep and cooking,” said Lujan Grisham.

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