The Potluck

House passes universal free meals for Minnesota students

By: - February 9, 2023 8:26 pm

The Minnesota Senate passed a bill providing universal free meals for Minnesota students. Photo by Getty Images.

The state House late Thursday passed universal free meals for Minnesota students, despite firm Republican opposition.

Under the free school meals bill, Minnesota will pay the gap between federal funding and the cost of the meal regardless of a family’s income and bars schools from charging students for breakfast and lunch.

The House passed the bill 70-58. The bill now goes to the Senate, and Gov. Tim Walz supports the legislation and included universal free meals in his budget. 

The federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic reimbursed schools for the cost of breakfast and lunch for all students. The program ended in September, however.

“We as a state fall short of providing equal opportunities for all students without exception, and in a state with an agricultural tradition as rich as ours it is particularly unacceptable that any child go hungry,” said Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis and the bill’s chief author.

Providing free meals to students would cost about $200 million annually, according to government estimates. The majority of Minnesota schools receive federal funding from the National School Lunch Program, which reimburses them for each meal served, though it doesn’t cover the cost of the entire meal. This bill (HF5) would fill the funding gap.

Universal free meals would apply to over 600,000 Minnesota students — the approximate number of students enrolled in schools in the National School Lunch Program.

Republicans oppose the proposal, arguing that rich families shouldn’t get free meals.

“Paying for lunches for every student — kids that can afford it, families that can afford this — that doesn’t make sense,” said Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea. “That’s not the answer. Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

Jordan said that meals should be one of the things that schools provide students, like it does chairs, desks and supplies. 

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. Advocates also say providing free lunch and breakfast would reduce stigma against students who need free and reduced lunch or can’t afford the same meal as everyone else.

Earlier in the evening Thursday, the House unanimously passed a bill that allocates $5 million in emergency funding for Minnesota food shelves with little debate. 

Visits to Minnesota food shelves increased by 53% last year, to 5.5 million, according to a recent report from Hunger Solutions.

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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.