The Potluck

House committee furthers universal free meals program for Minnesota schools

By: - January 12, 2023 9:38 am

Anoka-Hennepin School District nutrition staff Kim Cronky, right, and Sherry McClellan, left, hand grab-and-go lunches to a family at Anoka High School’s pickup site. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota Democrats are again advocating to provide free meals for all students, and now with a $17.6 billion budget surplus they are hoping it will become a reality.

The federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic reimbursed schools for the cost of breakfast and lunch for all students. This program ended in September, pulling the rug out from many families and burdening them with the cost after a two-year hiatus.

“Schools are places where our students’ needs can be met, and that includes hunger,” said Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, the House bill’s chief author. The government has continued to provide free and reduced priced meals to students whose families are below an income ceiling, but advocates say it leaves too many students behind. “Students can’t learn when they’re hungry … so schools should be able to provide meals, just like we provide desks and pencils and books.”

Republican lawmakers said they were concerned about the cost to provide meals to all students, noting that students from high-income households could pay for lunch themselves without issue.

Officials haven’t conducted a cost element for this year’s universal meal bill, but in last year’s bill that died without passage was estimated to cost Minnesota about $185 million annually.

The House Education Policy Committee heard tearful testimony from school administrators, teachers and parents who talked about the difficulty of going without the free meals. A student named Will, who didn’t disclose his last name, said on Wednesday he learned that his mom decided to give him lunch money instead of buying a meal for herself, and he emotionally pleaded with the committee to make school meals free to help his family financially.

Minnesota schools receive federal funding from the National School Lunch Program through reimbursements for each meal served, though it doesn’t cover the cost of the entire meal. This bill would require Minnesota to pay the gap between federal funding and the cost of the meals regardless of a family’s income and bars schools from charging students.

Students currently can apply for free or reduced lunch, but bill advocates say the paperwork is a headache for schools and many families who would benefit from free lunch don’t meet the strict guidelines.

Universal free meals would apply to about 2,000 Minnesota schools, including private ones  — those enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

Gov. Tim Walz said passing this bill is one of his top education priorities. He was scheduled to serve meals and talk about the universal meal program in Rochester on Wednesday, but the event was canceled due to bad weather.

The House Education Policy Committee passed the bill in a voice vote along party lines.

“We can’t wish food existed. It costs money, and the state has money,” Jordan said. “We can spend it on making sure children learn in schools and have food.”

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.