SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Earlier this year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 4, the Healthy Universal School Meals Bill. The law aims to ensure kids across the state have nutritious, free meals in school. But now lawmakers are questioning how that will happen as the cost to produce food rises.
“We really want every student to have fresh-made food and yet there’s not enough money,” Sen. William P. Soules (D-Doña Ana) said in a Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force meeting at the end of September.
The idea behind the Healthy Universal School Meals Bill was strongly supported. The bill received unanimous approval in the legislature and was backed by the governor. But despite support, some imply the project was underfunded from the get-go.
“$22.5 million was appropriated for SB4,” Kendal Chavez, the governor’s food and hunger advisor, said during the legislative meeting. “So, even at the time of projections last session, which were old projections based on old student counts, etc., that was already $10 million under what we asked for.”
“What we know now,” Chavez said, is that “we’re $15 million short for this year and $15 million short for next year at a minimum.”
If the legislature doesn’t cover those costs in upcoming sessions, schools will have to pay up. That’s “not an option,” she added.
The law says that “every kid in New Mexico if they’re attending a school that operates the National School Lunch Program, gets meals for free, no questions asked. That’s a breakfast and a lunch every day,” Chavez said. The bill applies to a majority of schools in the state and also aims to boost the availability of locally-grown food in schools.
To try to address the funding shortage, Sen. Soules asked Chavez and a representative from the Department of Finance and Administration to give legislative requests to the Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force early in order to try to get funding passed next lawmaking session.
In addition to money issues, some lawmakers expressed concern that the local food supply chain isn’t robust enough to support schools’ needs. Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) Superintendent Scott Elder told the committee that the sheer size of APS puts a large demand on local produce growers. And Rep. Jack Chatfield (R-Colfax, Curry, Harding, Quay, San Miguel & Union Counties) said the local beef industry may not have the shipping capability to bring fresh meat to schools. Sen. Stuart Ingle (R-Chaves, Curry, De Baca, Lea & Roosevelt) summed it up this way: “A lot of these things are great ideas, but they’re just really tough to do.”
Despite the challenges, Sen. Soules, leading the lawmaking committee, said he’s looking forward to getting the program going and bringing meals to students across all districts.