New Mexico governor signs universal school meals into law

All children in New Mexico will get free school meals beginning July 1, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday signed legislation, SB 4, launching the permanent program.

New Mexico is now the fifth state to require free school meals for all students — joining California, Colorado, Maine and Minnesota, according to the Food Research & Action Center, which tracks universal school meal legislation. It became the second state to do so just this month after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on March 17 signed HF 5 into law.

Starting July 2023, some $22.5 million is set aside to fund universal school meals through New Mexico’s state budget bill, HB 2. The initial draft of the universal school meals bill had sought $30 million, and it’s expected that in a later, brief state legislative session, the remaining funds will be requested to fully fund the measure, said Marie Johnson, president of the New Mexico School Nutrition Association.

Nonetheless, Johnson said the current funding is enough to get the ball rolling for schools to serve free meals to every student, regardless of their income.

The universal school meals law passed on a unanimous vote in both the state’s House and Senate. Additionally, the legislation includes an incentive program for schools to serve local, high-quality products aiming to improve the relationship between schools and local ranchers and farmers. New Mexico’s elementary schools will also be required to provide more time for students to eat in an effort to reduce food waste.  

Growing state efforts to secure permanent school meals follow the June 2022 expiration of a federal pandemic-era waiver, granted by Congress, that permitted free school meals to be served to students nationwide. 

Most recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed lowering the threshold, from 40% to 25% of a school’s or district’s identified student percentage participation, to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision. That provision allows high-poverty schools to serve free school meals without requiring families to fill out an application. 

The USDA said the proposed rule change is a step toward advancing free school meals for all nationwide, just as President Joe Biden pledged in September to expand access to free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.

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