New Mexico families need universal free healthy meals

New Mexico has a mission for the New Year: to increase its support for youth in school cafeterias across the state. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently announced her Healthy School Meals for All initiative, coupled with the additional resources to ensure those meals are packed with ingredients as healthy as fresh, home-cooked and locally-grown food. As a school nutrition expert in New Mexico, I can tell you firsthand that providing healthy meals for all students enhances their learning while addressing student hunger and reducing the stigma surrounding “free lunches.”

Governor Lujan Grisham is building on a legacy of investing in student nutrition in New Mexico. She lobbied for legislation in 2020 that would eliminate student co-payments for discounted school meals, and in 2017 the state passed the first statewide lunch-shaming law. While child poverty rates in New Mexico have declined slightly in recent years — and food insecurity rates continue to improve — work to ensure healthy, balanced school meals for all students, regardless of income, remains critical.

Currently, New Mexico school districts face various financial challenges related to school meals. Many receive grant funding, including the New Mexico Grown Grant, which allows schools to buy food grown, raised, or harvested in New Mexico. But how school districts use the funds to prepare school meals, and how families pay for those meals, varies, as some districts continue to face large school meal debts. Fortunately, this initiative will level the playing field for school districts and families.

The state goes a step further by encouraging school nutrition departments to purchase even more local, quality, healthy ingredients and requiring more home-cooking. As we all know, New Mexico is adorned with farms and ranches that can provide locally grown fruits, vegetables, and livestock. Connecting with these growers is of great asset to the health of future generations of New Mexicans and the strengthening of local economies, diversifying supply chains, and building resilient, equitable, culturally informed local and regional food systems. For school districts that already have relationships with their local farming community, the new proposal will amplify that work and bring more menu items created from scratch. As I write this, I have hope that this will make our youth healthier, stronger and better supported.

During the pandemic, the federal waivers on free school meals allowed all students in all schools free access to breakfast and lunch during distance learning and ongoing work-related, economic, supply chain and other pandemic-related challenges. This helped so many families, only it was taken away last fall.

New Mexico must accept the governor’s proposal. Making school meals for all a permanent program in the state promotes equity between students and food producers and harmonizes our local economies to feed families in the most efficient and healthiest way. Along with many of my colleagues, parents, and food and nutrition advocates across the state, I am pleading with the New Mexico State Legislature to pass the Governor’s proposal to invest permanently in essential nutritional support for youth in schools. It’s a step in the right direction to ensure New Mexico’s future is bright.

Marie Johnson is President of the NM Student Nutrition Association and Student Nutrition Program Coordinator for the Farmington Municipal School District.