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Heinrich, Sanders, Gillibrand, and Omar Seek to Expand and Make Permanent Universal School Meals

Legislation would save New Mexico nearly $40 million annually

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Representative Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) announced the Universal School Meals Program Act, legislation that provides a permanent solution to end child hunger in schools by offering free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all students, preschool through high school, regardless of income. Throughout the pandemic, this program provided food-insecurity relief to families across the country, but expired in September 2022.  

With New Mexico’s recent enactment of Senate Bill 4, the Universal School Meals Program Act would save the state around $40 million annually.

“Every child deserves a quality education and a fair shot at success. No child deserves to go hungry. I am working hard to deliver resources for our kids’ education, and I am going to work equally hard to make sure our kids are fed – so that the pangs of hunger aren’t undercutting the opportunities ahead of them,” said Heinrich, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing USDA nutrition programs. “This legislation would take New Mexico’s recent universal school meals and make it permanent nationwide, while also helping to save our state up to $40 million annually. When we invest in our children, we invest in our future.”

“In the richest country in the world, it is an outrage that millions of children struggle with hunger every day,” said Sen. Sanders. “Every child deserves a quality education free of hunger. What we’ve seen during this pandemic is that a universal approach to school meals works. We cannot go backwards. I am proud to introduce this legislation alongside my colleagues to ensure no student goes hungry again.” 

“Universal free breakfast and lunch will take the focus off of our student’s stomachs and place it in their studies, where it belongs. I’m pleased to see Senator Heinrich taking our successful state effort to the federal level,” said State Senator Michael Padilla, lead author of New Mexico’s Healthy Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights Act, also known as Senate Bill 4, enacted into law on March 28, 2023.

“Child hunger is a well-documented problem around the country. Undernutrition in children shows up in the classroom as behavioral issues, inattentiveness, and illness. One of the best tools out there to get children’s bodies and brains ready to learn is free school meals. It gives them the nutrition they need and takes the worry away of having to pay for those meals. This legislation is not only a humanitarian necessity but leverages federal educational investments otherwise lost to children who are too hungry to focus,” said Jennifer Ramo, Esq., Founder and Director of New Mexico Appleseed.

“Students that attend school in New Mexico are provided with books and tools for learning, and we believe that breakfast and lunch are very important tools for learning,” said Sonya Moore, Nutritional Services Coordinator, Hobbs Municipal Schools.

Prior to the pandemic, school participation rates in the universal school meals program more than doubled from 2014 to 2018. The Universal School Meals Program Act builds off that success and offers major benefits to students, families, public schools, and communities. Studies show that students with access to free breakfast have improved attendance rates and perform better in school. Free and accessible school meals have also shown to reduce financial stress for students and families, improve health outcomes in students, reduce stigma associated with the programs, and lead to fewer behavioral incidents and lower suspension rates.

For communities, the inclusion of local foods in school meal programs protects and promotes small family farms, enriches local economies, and provides nutritious ingredients for our kids. Every dollar spent on local food generates over two dollars in local economic activity, and local food programs provide hands-on education about proper nutrition, regional crops, traditional Native foods, farming techniques, and environmental stewardship. That is why this legislation provides up to a $0.30 per meal incentive for schools that procure 25 percent of their food from local sources. If all schools met the 25 percent local food criteria for school meals, it would provide local farmers with an additional $3.3 billion in income per year, a 28 percent increase in local food sales – an enormous investment for rural communities. 

The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.); and by Reps. Alma Adams, Jake Auchincloss, Becca Balint, Nanette Barragán, Joyce Beatty, Jamaal Bowman, Julia Brownley, Cori Bush, Tony Cárdenas, André Carson, Greg Casar, Sean Casten, Judy Chu, Emanuel Cleaver II, Jasmine Crockett, Mark DeSaulnier, Adriano Espaillat, Dwight Evans, Maxwell Alejandro Frost, Ruben Gallego, Sylvia Garcia, Jesús “Chuy” García, Jimmy Gomez, Raul Grijalva, Jahana Hayes, Brian Higgins , Jared Huffman, Jonathan Jackson, Sheila Jackson Lee, Sara Jacobs, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Ann McLane Kuster, John B. Larson, Barbara Lee, Summer Lee, Mike Levin, Zoe Lofgren, Seth Magaziner, Betty McCollum, Morgan McGarvey, Jim McGovern, Grace Meng, Gwen Moore, Joseph Morelle, Seth Moulton, Kevin Mullin, Jerrold Nadler, Grace F. Napolitano, Joe Neguse, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Jimmy Panetta, Mark Pocan, Ayanna Pressley, Delia C. Ramirez, Linda Sánchez, Jan Schakowsky, Adam Schiff, Haley Stevens, Mark Takano, Rashida Tlaib, Jill Tokuda, Paul D. Tonko, Ritchie Torres, Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Nikema Williams.

Read the bill summary, here

Read the legislation, here.

Read the full list of organizational support, here.