The Potluck

Minnesota Senate passes universal free school meals; bill heads back to House

By: - March 14, 2023 3:59 pm

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

The state Senate on Tuesday passed a bill 38-26 to provide free school breakfast and lunch for all Minnesota students.

The bill (HF5) will have to go back to the House for a concurring vote before making its way to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk for his signature. Walz supports the legislation and included universal free school meals in his budget. 

Under the free school meals bill, the state will pay the gap between federal funding and the cost of meals. The state will also bar all schools enrolled in the National School Lunch Program — which includes the majority of schools in Minnesota, both public and private — from charging students for one breakfast and lunch each day. Some Republicans, citing their own children’s appetites, said they were concerned the bill would prevent a child from receiving a second lunch. 

“Different kids have different needs,” Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, said. 

Chief author of the bill Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said the bill does not bar a child from a second lunch, but a second meal would be up to either families or schools to provide. 

“Everyone in this chamber campaigned on putting money back in the pockets of families we represent. That’s what this bill will do. Look at it like a lunch box tax cut. It gives money back to families,” Gustafson said. 

“Feeding kids is the right thing to do,” Gustafson added. “There is no worksheet or assignment, test or project that will matter to a student who hasn’t had anything to eat.” 

Gustafson estimated that a family living in White Bear Lake with two kids could save nearly $1,900 per school year if provided free meals. It will cost about $200 million annually to provide free meals to the more than 600,000 Minnesota students the bill applies to. 

DFL lawmakers and advocates say the bill will reduce the stigma students experience while obtaining free lunches and lessen the amount of paperwork districts have to do. While many Republicans said they were against giving rich kids free lunches, a few Republicans, including Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, supported the bill.

“There are some very real needs out there that this will help to address. Some might say that it helps a few that don’t need the help, but actually, I’m OK with that,” Abeler said. “There are a lot of pressures on a lot of families that this will take a load off of.” 

The only Republican co-author of the bill, Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, attempted to table the bill to include it in more comprehensive education policy legislation later on. Republicans — and school districts — are concerned about how the bill will impact school funding, as paperwork related to free and reduced lunches helps determine state funding for districts. While his amendment to table the bill failed, Duckworth still voted in support of the legislation. 

“We don’t have the opportunity to craft the perfect bill the way we would with exactly the language we think is the best,” Duckworth said. “So I’m forced to ask myself, when it comes to the bill as it stands: Does it do more good than bad? And to that I’d say, let’s feed our kids.”

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Grace Deng
Grace Deng

Grace Deng was a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. They studied legal studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. The Seattle native has previously been a statehouse intern with USA TODAY Network Ohio and an editorial fellow with Washingtonian Magazine.