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School Closures Due to Coronavirus Complicate Feeding NM's Kids

With New Mexico schools closed for three weeks starting today, the state is keeping cafeterias open to feed kids, organizing grab-and-go meals and working with the National Guard to help distribute student meals. (Pixabay/Wokandapix)
With New Mexico schools closed for three weeks starting today, the state is keeping cafeterias open to feed kids, organizing grab-and-go meals and working with the National Guard to help distribute student meals. (Pixabay/Wokandapix)
March 16, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- In an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, many of the country's largest public school districts have closed. And those who fight hunger worry the nation's health crisis could be compounded by a hunger crisis.

A 2019 report ranked New Mexico first in the nation for its rate of child hunger. Joel Berg is chief executive officer of the nonprofit Hunger Free America and said school closures due to COVID-19 will affect millions of students served free or discounted meals at school cafeterias.

"One out of 4 children in New Mexico lives in households that can't always afford enough food," Berg said. "And for many, the school lunches and school breakfasts they get are the only reliable, nutritious meals they get."

New Mexico state officials say they are working to extend services for students who rely on the meals they're served during school hours.

Last Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said school cafeterias will remain open, and school officials are working to organize grab-and-go food options. Albuquerque already has identified 89 sites for meal pick-ups for school-age students younger than 18.

In response to the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued interim guidance to schools, recommending they avoid having students gather in groups. But Berg said the U.S. does not have a comprehensive food-distribution model for how to deal with the current crisis, and argues it shouldn't be happening at all.

"I think every day is a wake-up call for hunger in America," he said. "We're the only industrialized Western nation on the planet that has a problem like this, even per-capita."

Nearly 30 million kids a day rely on government-subsidized school lunches. Berg urges Congress to act quickly to put more money into federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, as well as the Women Infants and Children nutrition-assistance program.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - NM