Kendal Chavez stands with four students in a large, busy room.
Kendal Chavez of the New Mexico Governor’s Office, along with students Lislein, Samuel, Mikael, and Ares, celebrate their successful advocacy day.

It all started during the pandemic. New Mexico leaders in government, schools, business, and nonprofits came together to find solutions to a problem that has plagued America since the beginning: How do we feed our hungry kids?

These humble but powerful conversations recognized that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico had one of the highest food insecurity rates in the nation. This was only made worse by high unemployment, school closures, and food shortages throughout 2020 and 2021. A key lesson learned from attempting to feed schoolchildren during a historic public health crisis is that flexibility matters. The more options are available, the more likely a family will find something that works.

Coming out of the pandemic and the discussions facilitated by the governor’s office, a plan to provide school meals to all at no cost was born. Recently, that plan passed the New Mexico legislature without objection. This unanimously approved law could be a blueprint for every state and even the federal government as they wrestle with hunger coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kendal Chavez, Food and Hunger Advisor for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and a FoodCorps alum and current Board Member, has been working on free school meals for all for almost a year, and on hunger in general for much longer. “In August or September, FoodCorps connected me with people in Maine and Vermont,” Chavez said, “so I could learn about their free school meals for all programs. Having an advisor who understood food, hunger, and agriculture was very important to the governor.”

Once the initial proposal was sketched out, Alicia Chavez, FoodCorps’ New Mexico Impact and Partnerships Lead, got involved, getting a letter supporting free school meals for all signed by 59 national and New Mexico-based organizations. There was also a significant FoodCorps investment in bolstering awareness through intentional media work and organizing people to build support for the initiative. Alicia states, “FoodCorps’ 2030 goal of every child having access to food education and nourishing food in school was the driving force behind our efforts.”

With a coalition built and the legislative session starting soon, the governor’s office started working with lawmakers to address some of the concerns surrounding the legislation. This was a key component to getting the bill passed unanimously. While New Mexico has a culture of coming together to support kids and give the next generation the best possible chance at success, there were worries regarding food waste, meal quality, and how food played a role in better educational outcomes. “We had to show that we could take kids’ minds off their stomachs and let them focus on school,” said Alicia Chavez. 

Despite all the hard work, every piece of legislation will hit bumps in the road. However, Governor Lujan Grisham’s office, FoodCorps, and those who supported school meals for all were ready. Alicia Chavez organized an advocacy day where she brought 30 families and young people from Farmington and Las Cruces to speak to senators about the importance of school meals for all and knowing where food is grown. Children came to the legislature and told their stories. “Food from the farms are very healthy, and they grow really fresh. If we didn’t have any farmers or farms, we would not have food,” said Lisleine, a Las Cruces third grader and FoodCorps student who helped advocate for the bill’s passage. 

School lunch experts talked about the technical and business side of providing school meals. Business leaders and farmers spoke about how feeding kids will help prepare the next generation of employees. After four weeks with no movement, the bill was brought up for a vote in its final Senate committee stop. “Once that happened, I knew the bill would pass,” said Kendal Chavez.

While the bill was destined to pass, it was still a shock when the votes were tallied. Free school lunches for all passed both bodies of the New Mexico legislature without a single “no” vote. Unanimous approval was not on anyone’s radar. Alicia Chavez remarked, “I have never seen any bill pass unanimously.” 

This win illustrates the potential our communities hold when we agree that nourishing every child is a shared value. The results in New Mexico show that it’s possible for people across political lines to collaborate on a solution, centered in justice, that will benefit our kids for generations to come.

Congratulations to everyone in New Mexico in making such an important move toward ensuring every child is well nourished at school.