March 3, 2023

Free school lunches head to Senate floor

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

When it comes to school lunches, Alejandro Najera laid it out straight for the lawmakers.

Senate Bill 4, the fifth grader from East San Jose Elementary School in Albuquerque told the Senate Finance Committee Thursday morning, might mean school kids “have better lunches that taste fresher, better.”

SB 4 would provide funding for public schools to offer two free meals a day — breakfast and lunch — to all students, regardless of whether they can pay for the meals or not. 

It also encourages districts to prepare healthier meals for children and to work with local farmers and producers to provide food. Schools that choose to offer healthier meals will receive more funding, according to the provisions of the bill. 

Najera was one of several people who spoke in favor of the legislation, which the committee unanimously voted to move to the Senate floor for a vote. 

With Najera was Melanie Maestas, community school coordinator for East San Jose Elementary School, who told lawmakers kids have to have a full stomach before they can have a mind for academics. 

“When kids don’t have healthy food they can’t concentrate on their studies,” she said.

It didn’t take much more testimony to sway members of the committee, who agreed the state can do more to feed hungry children whose only meals might be found in a school cafeteria during the school day.

Almost three-quarters of New Mexico students already receive free and reduced-price lunches, according to the Kids Count Data Center. This is one of the highest rates in the country — as of the 2019-2020 school year, only Mississippi and Washington, D.C. had higher rates of students receiving free and reduced lunches, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made providing free lunches to all students a priority in this year’s 60-day legislative session. She first brought the idea up during a convention on public health policy in Philadelphia late last year. 

“Starting right now, no one pays for a meal in school,” Lujan Grisham said at the time. “And this doesn’t just mean pizza slices and chocolate pudding.”

SB 4, co-sponsored by Sens. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, and Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, will be funded with about $30 million from House Bill 2, the budget bill.

SB 4 includes a provision requiring the state to leverage federal money to help finance the program, as well as allowing for a two-year implementation period for the program.

The bill also includes a clause giving tribal and private schools the option to take part in the program. 

Najera — who was so confident when speaking in front of the committee that, at one point, he walked up past the dais where senators sit to join them for part of the discussion — asked the lawmakers to support the bill as he sat in a chair next to Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup.

Muñoz got a laugh after a high school student speaking on behalf of the bill extolled the virtues of having healthy food choices at school. Muñoz then asked the youth what his favorite school lunch was.

“Nachos,” was the reply.

“You think those are healthy?” Muñoz asked.