Public Education Department Asks Kids To Rate School Meals


New Mexico school children are being invited to praise — or complain about — the meatloaf, pizza, mac-and-cheese and scrambled eggs served by their school cafeteria.

The state Public Education Department is conducting a food quality survey through May to determine what students think about the 40 million breakfasts and 56 million lunches served in New Mexico school cafeterias across the state each year.

“School meals have come a long way in the last decade with more locally sourced, fresh food and real care about meeting nutrition standards. Now we’re asking students to give us some feedback on what they like or don’t so we can continue improving,” said Michael Chavez, director of the Public Education Department’s School Success and Wellness Bureau. 

The online survey, which takes about 5 minutes, will be open through May for students to complete outside of instructional time. Fliers in Spanish and English will be sent home to notify family members and ask their help in administering the survey to younger children.

“We don’t want parents and grandparents who may be remembering their own school meals to exert any influence on how students today feel about what they’re being served,” Chavez said. “We really want to know what today’s customers think about the freshness, taste and nutritional value of their meals.”

Every day, nearly 31 million children receive low-cost or free lunches through the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program operating in more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions.

The program serves 4.9 billion school lunches annually, more than the nation’s largest restaurant chains. But unlike restaurants, schools are required by law to meet strict requirements for calories, protein, fat, fiber and vitamins — all for about $1.30 per meal, which has to cover ingredients, labor and other overhead costs.

The School Breakfast program has been providing millions of additional meals each day to children in public and non-profit private schools and residential child-care institutions since it started as a pilot program in 1966.  

Even when schools moved to remote learning during the pandemic, school nutrition programs continued churning out meals for grab-and-go pickup or direct delivery. New Mexico served more than 32 million school meals from March 2020 through February 2021.

School meal programs began in 1946 with the National School Lunch Act. In the 1980s, budget cuts to the program caused districts to rely on cheaper, processed foods until 2010, when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required cafeteries to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in every meal.

While the federal government sets nutrition requirements for school meals, local school authorities decide which specific foods to serve and how to prepare them.

“Schools have a lot of  autonomy to build creative menus. Now it’s the students’ turn to tell us how we’re doing,” Chavez said.