February 5, 2020

Legislators introduce bill to expand free school lunches

New Mexico Rep. Willie Madrid, D-Chaparral, knows what it is like to go hungry.

As a child growing up in the foster care system, he experienced malnutrition, which led to an eating disorder that still leaves him battling to control his weight.

“That’s the hard facts of life,” Madrid said. “I struggle with my weight, have to manage diabetes. I had at-risk issues with food as a kid.”

He and Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque, have introduced a measure aimed at easing kids’ access to nutrition by covering the cost of lunch for many of New Mexico’s public school students from low-income families.

House Bill 10 would appropriate $650,000 a year to eliminate the mandatory copay for students across the state who qualify for federal reduced-price lunches — but not free lunches. Some 12,500 New Mexico students who are now paying 30 cents or 40 cents per meal under the federal lunch program would benefit from the bill, Madrid said.

“Kids can’t learn if they don’t have food in their stomachs,” he said. 

According to federal guidelines, children in households with an income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free school meals — $33,475 or less per year for a family of four — while those with household income at or below 185 percent of the poverty level — $47,638 or less for a family of four — are eligible for reduced-priced meals.

Children in households participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations — as well as foster kids, migrants, homeless children, runaway youth and Head Start participants — also are eligible for free school meals.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Michelle Lujan Grisham supports HB 10, which is expected to get its first hearing as early as Friday before the House Education Committee.

“Combating child hunger remains a priority for the governor. This bill provides a powerful tool [to do that],” Sackett said.

Jennifer Ramo, executive director of the Albuquerque-based nonprofit advocacy group New Mexico Appleseed and a proponent of HB 10, said low-income children often have little or no food at home, making school meals even more important. 

“One of the best tools to get children fed is school lunch,” Ramo said. 

New Mexico has wrangled with high rates of child poverty and food insecurity in recent years. In May, a report from the national nonprofit Feeding America said the state ranks first in the nation for its rate of child hunger.

Even a 30-cent or 40-cent fee for a school meal can become a barrier, Ramo said.

Referring to the $650,000 appropriation in Madrid’s bill to cover the fees, Ramo said,  “This is a tiny, tiny drop of money that can be life-changing for these kids.”

About 74 percent of students in Santa Fe Public Schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunch last year, just below the state average of 74.7 percent.

Maria Guerra, director of student nutrition for Gadsden Public Schools, said over 95 percent of that district’s 14,000 students are eligible for lunch aid. The high rate qualifies the entire district for a federal program that provides two free meals per day to every student.

The district is now partnering with the nonprofit Families and Youth Inc. to also offer free dinners at six elementary schools and one middle school. It served 6,000 dinners between August and October at after-school programs, Guerra said.

“We’ve seen a big increase in enrollment in these after-school programs once children and families realize we provide dinner and a snack,” Guerra said. “And I’ve heard from all the teachers that when their stomachs are full, the students are more focused on learning.”

She said, “Making school meals free is easiest on everyone.”

It cuts down on embarrassment to students who owe money for lunch and eliminates a food cost deficit that can reach thousands of dollars when parents can’t pay, she said.

Johanna King, a spokeswoman for Albuquerque Public Schools, said the state’s largest district — with 90,000 students — has accumulated more than $100,000 in school meal debt so far this year.