U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) introduced the Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act Thursday, legislation that would make it easier for students to access quality, nutritious school meals. The bill permanently increases the federal reimbursement level for school meals to help address funding challenges, enhance menus and increase access to locally grown food.
With New Mexico’s recent enactment of Senate Bill 4 in March, the Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act would help the state continue to provide free school meals for all. Senate Bill 4, known as The Healthy Universal School Meals for Children Act, made free meals at schools for every student in New Mexico a reality.
“New Mexico sent a strong message to the rest of our nation when it passed universal school meals: Every child deserves a quality education and a fair shot at success. That means no child goes hungry,” said Heinrich, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing USDA nutrition programs. “By permanently increasing the federal school meal reimbursement rate, the Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act is an important step toward keeping all of America’s kids fed. When we invest in our children, we invest in our future.”
School meals help shape lifelong healthy eating habits, and research shows that students who participate in school meal programs have better overall diet quality than nonparticipants. Higher food costs are adding to the urgency of this legislation, and a permanent solution will give school districts certainty as they upgrade their meal programs and plan for the future.
“A good education is our country’s great equalizer, but Georgia students can’t learn and grow if they’re distracted by an empty stomach,” Warnock said. “The more we learn about the lasting impact of food insecurity on children, the more important it becomes for Congress to strongly support school breakfasts and lunches. I’m proud to join Senators Heinrich and Fetterman in this critical effort to address childhood hunger in every corner of Georgia and the country.”
Under federal law, nearly 73% of all New Mexican students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Senate Bill 4 directs the state of New Mexico to establish an annual budget of $30 million for universal school meals after federal reimbursements offset the total cost to ensure all students receive free meals.
“Healthy meals in schools lead to healthy young minds in our communities,” said New Mexico Senator Michael Padilla , who sponsored SB4. “From the measure we passed six years ago ending lunchroom shaming, to the Healthy Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights Act we passed this year to ensure that all K-12 students have free breakfasts and lunches, I’m proud to see New Mexico set a national example for addressing childhood food and nutrition security. I thank and applaud Senators Heinrich, Warnock, Fetterman and the many co-sponsors of the Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act for making this a national priority.”
The Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act permanently increases the federal reimbursement level for all free, reduced-price, and paid-rate school meals by 45 cents for every lunch served and 28 cents for every breakfast served, with a yearly adjustment.
“No child should be worried about where their next meal comes from, and no child should ever be in debt because they can’t afford school lunch,” Fetterman said. “This bill will provide schools the necessary resources to meet our children’s basic needs.”
A permanent increase in federal school meal reimbursement rates would support state efforts to provide universal meals and better position New Mexico School Food Authorities (SFAs) to provide healthy meals for all students.
This legislation is cosponsored by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Peter Welch (D-V.T.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
The Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act has the support of more than a dozen organizations in New Mexico and across the country, including New Mexico Appleseed, Roadrunner Food Bank, New Mexico Voices for Children, School Nutrition Association, Food Research & Action Center, American Heart Association, MAZON, Bread for the World, First Focus Campaign for Children, Save the Children, Project Bread, Urban School Food Alliance, American Commodity Distribution Association, School Superintendents Association, Association of School Business Officials International, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Mayors Alliance to End Childhood Hunger, Flashfood, Chop Chop Family, and FoodCorps.
“This year, New Mexico became one of the first states to provide healthy school meals to every student in part by leveraging federal meal reimbursements through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program,” said Emily Wildau, director of New Mexico Kids Count at New Mexico Voices for Children. “But current meal reimbursement rates don’t cover the full cost of school meal programs. Passing the Healthy Meals Help Kids Learn Act will alleviate tight budgets for school meal programs by increasing the reimbursement rate for eligible meals with an annual adjustment for inflation, ensuring that our students are fed and ready to learn.”