Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Lawmakers chewing on bill proposing free school meals for all New Mexico students

Kami Mia Luna Trujillo, 8, from Las Cruces, left, and other students participate in a discussion with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about school lunches. This was in the Governor’s Office at the State Capitol on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE- Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push to provide free school meals for all K-12 students in New Mexico is not exactly generating a food fight at the Roundhouse.

But some legislators have expressed skepticism about the $30 million plan, expressing concern over food mandates and whether students whose families can afford to pay for their meals should qualify.

Members of the entire Senate Finance Committee plan to leave the Capitol Friday to eat lunch at a school on Santa Fe’s south side with the panel’s chairman, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, saying Thursday it’s “only fair” for legislators to eat a school meal before considering the bill.

He also expressed other concerns about the proposal, which would make New Mexico the sixth state to provide universal school meals.

“Is it better for me as a parent that can afford to pay for my kids’ lunch to go ahead and pay for it so another kid can have more,” Muñoz said during an interview.

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However, Lujan Grisham is forging ahead with the proposal, which she has described as part of her administration’s push to address chronic poverty across the state.

She met in the Governor’s Office on Thursday with elementary and high school students from Las Cruces and Farmington who had traveled to Santa Fe for the annual “Food and Farms Day” at the Roundhouse.

During the meeting, the governor asked the students about their favorite foods, school subjects and future aspirations, while expressing a personal fondness for pretzels.

“Good food means healthier kids who aren’t hungry,” Lujan Grisham told one student during the meeting, while adding that some New Mexico children get 80% of their daily calories from school meals.

The school meals legislation, Senate Bill 4, was filed by Democratic Sens. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque and Leo Jaramillo of Española, who said Thursday he recalls getting free school breakfasts when growing up.

The bill requires public and charter schools around New Mexico to provide a free breakfast and lunch every school day to students. It also encourages, but does not require, private and tribal schools to do likewise.

As part of the $30 million plan, the bill would make additional funding available to schools who buy New Mexico-grown produce, while also laying out guidelines for reducing food waste, such as a requirement that K-5 students have at least 20 minutes to eat their meals.

“We in the Governor’s Office … do not want to invest $30 million in school meals for them to go in the trash,” the governor’s food and hunger coordinator Kendal Chavez said during a Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill this week.

The committee spent several hours debating the legislation, but held off on a vote so that several technical fixes to the bill could be drafted.

Marie Johnson, a Farmington schools nutrition official who is president of the School Nutritional Association of New Mexico, said that one out of every five children in the state experiences food insecurity, while also citing high obesity rates.

“I see first hand every day student hunger and health issues that prevail because of poor diet choices or poor access to healthy foods,” Johnson said during this week’s hearing.

But some senators questioned during the same hearing whether the bill would provide too many mandates to teachers, such as requiring that students go to recess before eating lunch.

Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Gallup, also raised issues about whether tribal governments had been consulted on the legislation.

“I’m in support of the bill, but I don’t know that we’ve really brought in everybody that needs to be considered on this,” Pinto said.

The savory Roundhouse debate comes after 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 breakfasts 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.

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