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Food is stacked high at Roadrunner Food Bank on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. The produce is being prepared for shipment to distribution organizations like the Lobo Food Pantry.

Food is stacked high at Roadrunner Food Bank on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. The produce is being prepared for shipment to distribution organizations like the Lobo Food Pantry.

New bill aims to provide locally grown fruits and vegetables to schools, juvenile detention centers

New Mexico kids might have fresher fruits and vegetables on their plates in 2018.

House bill 208 could provide an appropriation of $1,440,000 to buy New Mexico grown fruits and vegetables for school districts, charter schools and juvenile detention centers. The appropriation would also pay for a full-time position to administer and promote the initiative.

The bill is sponsored by Republican State Rep. Jimmie Hall and Democratic State Rep. Brian Egolf.

In 2014, a very similar piece of legislation, HB 81, also tried to get funds for providing New Mexico grown produce in school lunches.

It was sponsored by former Socorro and Valencia Rep. Don Tripp and former State Sen. Timothy Keller. However, it died after being indefinitely postponed by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

There were only two differences between the 2014 bill and the current one: HB 81 did not include juvenile detention centers and it did not create a position for administering and promoting the initiative.

That bill did request the same amount of money, and had the same goal of bringing fresh, New Mexico-grown produce to school lunches.

In 2013, Hall sponsored an earlier version of the bill, HB 338, which was essentially the same bill as HB 81 in 2014. It also died in the same way.

UNM professor Diana Gonzales-Pacheco, who studies nutrition and family and community education, said she’s supportive of HB 208.

“It will increase the exposure and access of NM school children to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Additionally, from an economic standpoint, it supports our local farmers.”

According to a study done by the New Mexico Health Department, as of 2015, one in three third-graders and one in four kindergarten students in New Mexico are overweight or obese, and while the rate of obesity was lower than in 2010, it was still high.

Gonzales-Pacheco said this initiative may help with obesity and other health problems facing New Mexico students.

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“A diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a decreased risk for a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, obesity and some cancers,” she said. “The prevalence of obesity in the state is high. Data from 2015 shows that the prevalence of overweight or obesity in kindergarteners was 25.6 percent, and 34.4 percent in third graders.”

Gonzales-Pacheco said having locally grown produce also makes a difference in nutrition.

“Locally grown produce is fresher,” she said. “I like to use the example of tomatoes; locally grown tomatoes taste much better because they are harvested when they are ripe and ready to eat versus tomatoes that are grown elsewhere that need to be harvested early. It is also important for students to understand where their food comes from and for our school districts to support our local growers.”

According to a 2016 report by Feeding America, New Mexico is second among all states in childhood hunger and 27 percent of New Mexico children are at risk of not getting the food they need.

Gonzales-Pacheco said the bill would help all New Mexico students, but especially students who are food insecure. He said the bill could go as far as to help improve their education.

“They are dependent on school breakfast and lunch to meet a significant portion of their nutritional needs,” Gonzales-Pacheco said. “Good nutrition is associated with improved academic achievement. It is difficult for children to concentrate and learn when they are hungry.”

But with the state of New Mexico facing a $67 million shortfall for the 2017 fiscal year, and with Gov. Susana Martinez’s budget recommendation of a 3.5 percent pay reduction for teachers and state employees, the bill may have trouble securing funding for fresh produce.

“HB 208 is a win-win for NM students and farmers,” Gonzales-Pacheco said.

As of Wednesday, the bill has been to the Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, and will move on to the Appropriations and Finance Committee. Whether or not it will meet the same fate as its predecessors is yet to be seen.

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.

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