UPDATE Feb. 19, 2014, at 1:00 p.m.: HB 81 is stuck in committee.
Two years ago, the USDA made the first changes in a generation to public school meals. Students would see more produce at lunchtime.
But those fruits and veggies don’t have to be fresh. And the federal government offers a reimbursement of only 6 cents per plate to public schools tasked with providing more produce.
“We all know that to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s more expensive than that,” said Pam Roy, the executive director of Farm to Table, which promotes local agriculture. The organization has been working for years to make sure what appears on a student’s plate is fresh and grown in New Mexico.
A coalition of state food advocates is calling on lawmakers to pass a bill that would give $1.4 million to public schools every year to buy local produce. It’s a win-win, she says, for schools, students and New Mexico farmers.
The measure is sponsored by Rep. Don Tripp, a Republican from Socorro, and Sen. Tim Keller, a Democrat from Albuquerque. This issue has broad bipartisan support, Roy said. “People see the need for the kids and want kids to get the best. And they can also see that it’s really part of our local economy.”
Rodrigo Rodriguez with the Southwest Organizing Project says the initiative helps establish a market for small family farms who may not be able to sell their products through traditional outlets. “What it really allows them to do is plan out their growing season and work with the school service providers to make sure that the nutritional needs are being met.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says physical health is strongly linked with academic success, and hunger can lead to poor school performance. “Kids just do better when they’re eating better,” Rodriguez said.
The Food Research and Action Center indicates that children from low-income households are more than twice as likely to be obese. “It’s a little ridiculous to have kids in New Mexico facing hunger and obesity and all the dietary diseases that come along with that,” Rodriguez said. “We’re overweight and we’re hungry at the same time here in New Mexico.”
Roy added that 67 percent of schools in the state are part of the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced price lunches to students who need it. Schools are reimbursed $2.87 per plate for a free lunch, she said, but that’s expected to cover staff and supplies, too. That leaves about $1.25 for the five required lunch items: meat or alternate protein, grains, fruit, vegetables and dairy.
In 2007, Sen. Dede Feldman pulled in $85,000 in recurring funds to get farm-fresh produce in Albuquerque Public Schools. Last year, the Legislature provided $100,000—less than one-tenth of what was requested—to expand the program statewide. Sixty out of 89 districts are buying local produce now, Roy said. The Food and Nutrition Services Bureau has been helping deliver fruits and vegetables to school districts that aren’t near farms.
“New Mexico is an agricultural state,” Rodriguez said. “The limited water and the limited resources that we do have, we really feel like those resources should be going to feeding our people. There’s no reason why we should have these crazy food deserts and crazy obesity epidemics going on in a huge state that has such a rich agrarian heritage.”
Farm to Table called every public school in New Mexico to see what they’d like to serve in their cafeterias. Several items have proven popular: “Things like melons and apples and tomatoes, the lettuces, bell peppers, cucumbers,” Roy said. “A lot of the schools are now doing either just gorgeous salad bars or individual salads for kids to choose from.”
The food service director at Capital High School in Santa Fe saw enrollment in the meal program double once farm-fresh produce hit the table, Roy said.
Families and students also have to be educated about fruits and vegetables, too, Rodriguez said. “Kids don’t always eat it. It’s not always the most friendly to the palate. It’s not always the most recognizable food. It’s not always the most culturally appropriate food.”
But Roy added that nationally there’s been a shift. “When young people get used to eating something, they get into it.” Luckily in New Mexico, 26 percent of public schools provide some sort of farming education program, with school gardens, and visiting chefs and farmers. Additionally, Farm to Table helps provide schools with information about where their produce comes from, so students can get to know the local farmers who grew the items on their lunch tray.
New Mexico farmers, Farm to Table, SWOP and other organizations will be gathering in the Roundhouse Rotunda at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29, to launch Food and Farms Day. Monday, Feb. 3, marks School Nutrition Day at the Legislature.