By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee took a field trip Friday to get a taste of what New Mexico students are eating at school — part of a fact-finding mission as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham champions a proposal to provide pupils free breakfast and lunch regardless of family income.
Four of the 11 committee members — three Democrats and one Republican — boarded an electric bus outside the state Capitol just after 10 a.m. and traveled about six and a half miles to Ramirez Thomas Elementary, a school in southwest Santa Fe where all the students receive free breakfast and lunch. Four other committee members, all Democrats, drove separately and joined their colleagues in the cafeteria to break bread with the students.
“We just wanted to see what a school lunch menu looks like,” said committee Chairman Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. “Are they eating it all? Are they on the more nutritional side? The superintendent told us that they let them go for seconds and the school district picks [up the cost] on their own.”
As the pint-sized pupils were emptying their trays after lunch, Muñoz observed most students were throwing little away.
“This school is [100%] free [breakfast and] lunch, so these are the kids that need it,” he said. “We’ve got to see if they’re getting the right food and they’re liking what they’re getting.”
Under the governor’s $30 million proposal, which was introduced a week-and-a-half ago as Senate Bill 4, public school districts and charter schools would be required to provide “high-quality” breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students. The legislation allows Bureau of Indian Education schools, tribally controlled schools and private schools the option to do so. The bill is scheduled to be reconsidered Monday by the Senate Education Committee, which expressed support for the legislation Wednesday but postponed a vote to give the sponsors time to incorporate recommended changes.
“The $30 million essentially helps to increase the value or the cost per meal to ensure that there’s a healthy component to that meal,” one of the sponsors, Sen. Micheal Padilla, D-Albuquerque, told the committee Wednesday.
“Up to 25% of the additional monies that the districts are going to receive can be used for value-added quality foods that are New Mexico grown, so farmers and ranchers will suddenly be getting some knocks on their doors to bring their products and services into school districts,” he said.
The bill requires students to get at least 20 minutes to eat lunch as part of an effort to reduce waste.
Friday’s menu at Ramirez Thomas included cheese-stuffed breadsticks with marinara sauce, baby carrots, salad, an orange and milk. Of all the menu items, the breadsticks seemed to be the least popular.
“I have to say that the baby carrots were actually some of the best I’ve ever had,” Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, said on the ride back to the Roundhouse.
The meal was “tasty,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who also rode the bus to the school.
“It’s good to see some vegetables and fruit,” he said. “It’s obviously important that it’s healthy and tasty. I complimented the cooks.”
As he ate his lunch, Steinborn’s container of milk sat on the table unopened.
“Some things don’t change,” Steinborn said, adding he would drink his milk.
Steinborn, who went for the breadsticks first, said it was important for lawmakers to get a firsthand look — and taste — at what students in New Mexico are eating.
“We’re talking a lot about funding school meals in New Mexico, so the chair thought, ‘Hey, let’s go experience a school meal.’ It’s been a while since we’ve all had one so we can have kind of an informed conversation about it — and it has been a long time,” he said.
Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said she was touched by the students.
“They make my day, and they just energize me to do more and more,” she said.
Steinborn said the governor’s proposal raises an important issue.
“Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry, and we know that a lot of kids do come to school hungry,” he said. “It’s important that nutritionally we also get it right.”
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said he hopes the Legislature passes the governor’s proposal.
“We know students learn better when they have a full stomach,” he said. “This opens up the opportunity for everyone to eat. It’s no longer who can afford it, who cannot. It’s about leveling the playing field, allowing the opportunity, and it will contribute to better student outcomes.”
Chavez said the district’s menus are “very specific” to what students like to eat, which creates less waste. Asked how school districts can get students to eat healthier items, such as fruits and vegetables, Chavez said students have to be provided the food on their trays.
“If it’s not in front of them, they don’t know what it is,” he said. “By providing fresh vegetables and fruit, you’re giving them the option to at least understand, taste, learn, experiment and hopefully they do pick up better habits.”