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Future of free school meals in limbo as June deadline approaches

Food Business News

Last month, congress passed a $1.5 trillion spending bill to help avoid a possible government shutdown.

But one thing left out of this spending bill was the universal free school meals program, which allowed an estimated 10 million students access to free school lunches.

Introduced back in March of 2020, the program represented a consistent and often healthiest source of food for children.

For students who attend Santa Fe Public Schools, these free meals accounted for 2600 free breakfasts and 5650 lunches this year, according to reporting by the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Elizabeth Cull, the Director of Student Nutrition said the universal free school meals program was an integral part of student’s lives during the pandemic and made their jobs much easier.

“It was certainly beneficial to them and their families, it was much easier for us because it's much more complicated when you’re doing paperwork involved and collecting money and with all these circumstances happening, it made everything much easier. It was allowing access in ways that are usually not allowed.”

According to data collected by NM Voices for Children, 73.4% of students in New Mexico participated in the national school lunch program in 2021-2022.

In Santa Fe county alone, food insecurity among children increased by 6% in 2020.

Emily Wildau, Research and Policy Analyst/KIDS COUNT coordinator at NM Voices for Children says the number of children in New Mexico who face food insecurity is high.

“We have a really high rate of child food insecurity in the state and many families rely on those extra meals their kids can access for free and reduced prices at school to help stretch their budget at home to pay for their other expenses and their other food needs.”

Wildau echoed Cull’s example, of how much easier the universal free school meals program was from a logical perspective.

“The nice thing about the weavers during COVID was that no one had to worry about the paperwork, right. So every kid was able to go to school and get a meal if they needed it, and during the pandemic a lot of families for the first time were experiencing economic hardship. So if they have had to go through the process of how to get cerificed so their kid can get a meal at school, they may not have had any sort guidance or understanding or capacity of how to approach that program.”

Looking ahead to the future, with the universal free school meals program set to end on June 30th, Cull said the district will continue to provide free meals to students over the summer, but parents will need to fill out paperwork to see if they are eligible for free meals come next school year.

Cull also noted that they are working hard to keep as many schools within SFPS as free meal wise as possible.

“We’re trying really, really hard to keep as many schools free, as free as possible. So we’re looking at our numbers and our statistics right now to see how many we can do. And it's looking better than I had thought originally.”

According to Cull, nine schools will still have to turn in an application for free and reduced meals since the entire school won’t be qualified.

The way students and parents qualify is through CEP or Community Eligibility Provision, which is based entirely on if students and their families receive either food stamps or any other type of assistance.

Cull said the district is planning on releasing more information to families on free meal applications on July 1st.

Outside of free school meals, Wildau says families still have access to other means of food assistance within their communities.

“Families can always call roadrunner food bank, they have a hungry hotline,  food assistance number, on their website you can search for the nearest food distributions and get a calendar schedule and those are really easy for families to access. They can just go and pick up food, no questions asked.”

But Wildau said this assistance is just a supplement and not a permanent solution, and that there’s still a need for economic support for families.