By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican
When Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot, talks to the thousands of families across Northern New Mexico who use the regional food bank’s services, she hears a consistent story about household budgets.
First, she said, families pay for fixed expenses: They make rent or mortgage payments; they pay for gas and electricity to keep the lights and heat on; they fuel up vehicles so they can get to work.
What’s left of their meager income, Hooper said, will go toward food.
“What we see with families is that the most flexible piece of their budget is their food budget,” she said. “Oftentimes, we see that after paying all of those fixed expenses, there is nothing left for food.”
The situation grows dire. Parents start to skip meals so their children can eat. Cereal bowls are filled with water rather than more expensive milk.
A bill being considered by the Legislature is designed to relieve some of the pressure on families’ food budgets by providing free meals for all public school students. Senate Bill 4, backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and announced as the “Kids Kitchens” initiative in her State of the State address Jan. 17, would provide a $30 million investment to cover the cost of all school meals, create incentives for districts to offer food from local producers, fund improvements to school kitchens and require up to 20 minutes of seated time for lunch.
Advocates say the bill would confront the prevalent and persistent problem of child hunger in New Mexico while improving students’ health and academic outcomes, and eliminating school lunch debt — which can cost districts thousands of dollars.
Discussion in the Senate Education Committee initially stalled SB 4, but a new version that addressed some lawmakers’ concerns — lengthening districts’ implementation time to two years and removing restrictions on lunch periods, among other changes — secured a unanimous vote to advance the measure.
The bill mixes funding sources, with federal funds providing free meals to students and schools that already qualify and state funds — that $30 million figure — filling in the rest.
“All the bill’s saying is we’re going to try to use as much federal funds as we qualify for. What we don’t qualify for, the state is going to pay for,” said Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, during a committee hearing Jan. 30. “… This will be something that will have to be put in the budget on an annual basis.”
Next, SB 4 heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.
The bill’s most fundamental policy change: More New Mexico students would have access to school meals. It’s an essential change in a state with one of the highest rates of child hunger in the U.S., said Emily Wildau, a research and policy analyst at the Albuquerque-based nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children.
One in five New Mexico children face food insecurity, Wildau said, and 35% of households in the state include children who aren’t eating enough because their families struggle to buy food.
This problem may worsen as families and organizations designed to combat hunger weather a “perfect storm” of inflated food prices, high demand at food pantries and substantial declines in federal food assistance disbursements expected by March, Hooper said.
Kids Kitchens would ensure New Mexico students receive at least two meals a day at school, said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor.
“[This] investment will eliminate school meal costs — and ensure higher quality, healthy meals — for more than 309,000 New Mexico children, making sure that hunger and nutrition are never again a barrier to learning,” Sackett wrote in an email.
Those two free meals each day would change more than students’ hunger levels, Wildau said; they’ll also contribute to better health and academic outcomes.
Children who go hungry experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related conditions than kids from higher-income families, Wildau said, and the lifelong impacts of these ailments can perpetuate cycles of poverty, hunger and poor health outcomes.
Hungry kids are also more likely to struggle in school. Data compiled by the Santa Fe-based Food Depot shows hungry students are more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school; experience developmental issues, such as language or motor skill delays; and face social and behavioral challenges.
“In my opinion, nutrition is the key to learning,” said Elizabeth Cull, director of student nutrition for Santa Fe Public Schools. “If we don’t have the nutrients that are needed to make our brain function properly, then learning is difficult.”
In fact, food insecurity often takes kids out of the classroom because of behavioral or health issues, added Jennifer Ramo, founder and executive director of the child hunger and poverty advocacy lab New Mexico Appleseed. Hungry students often can’t sit still, develop stomachaches or headaches, or behave badly simply because they’re hungry.
“We all get hangry,” Ramo said. “These kids are no different.”
The benefits of free and universal school meals affect parents, too, by creating more wiggle room in their food budgets, advocates said.
“One of the things we’ve learned over the dozen years of doing this in New Mexico is how many people base their budget on these [school] meals that they don’t have to buy groceries for,” Ramo said.
“It should be a real relief for families with children who no longer have to worry about buying breakfast food and lunch food for their kids,” she added.
The bill also would ease the debt schools accrue from unpaid meals.
Students in Santa Fe Public Schools currently owe more than $16,000 in lunch debt, Cull said. The debt is from just nine of the district’s 28 school sites, those that don’t already qualify for state or federally funded universal free meals due to high rates of low-income students.
By the end of the 2022-23 school year, Cull expects the debt to increase to about $30,000.
Breakfast at the district’s schools costs $1.20 and lunch less than $3, she said. Still, the money adds up.
Although Cull and her staff hound parents with phone calls and letters requesting payment, most of the debt will probably go unpaid, she said. Under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, the district can’t have a negative balance by the end of the year, so any remaining meal debt must be covered by the district’s operational funds.
“The way I look at it is our negative balance every year basically takes possibly at least one teacher or teacher aide away,” Cull said.
Those advocating for SB 4 tout the way it tackles so many problems — hunger, academic outcomes, health, lunch debt — with one solution.
“There are very few opportunities to pass policy that brings in federal money, feeds kids, improves academic outcomes, improves health outcomes with such a simple solution and such a small dollar,” Ramo said.
“When kids aren’t having to worry about these things and when their families may be a little less stressed out about their basic needs at home, they’re going to come to class and they’re going to be ready to learn,” Wildau added. “It all ties together; none of it’s in a vacuum.”