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Governor Walz signs free school meals bill for Minnesota students

Community activists, youth leaders and other lawmakers attended the news conference in northeast Minneapolis on Friday afternoon.

MINNEAPOLIS — Editor's note: The above video originally aired on March 14, 2023.

On Friday, Governor Tim Walz visited Webster Elementary School in Minneapolis and signed a bill that will provide Minnesota students free breakfast and lunch.

Community activists, youth leaders and lawmakers attended the news conference in northeast Minneapolis on Friday afternoon.

“If this were easy, this would have been done a long time ago," said Gov. Walz before signing the bill into law.

Gov. Walz says Minnesota is the fourth state to make meals free at schools joining California, Colorado and Maine.

It was obvious from the words of those who wrote and shepherded this legislation it was about more than dollars and cents. Among them was Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, who fought back tears at times while telling the assembled crowd that while growing up she was among the Minnesota children who didn't know where their next meal is coming from. She said the bill will remove barriers to learning and the end the stigma and embarrassment of kids whose families can't afford lunch.  

"I was 1 in 6 of those Minnesota children who experienced hunger. I'm one of the children who grew up with a different colored lunch ticket because my family utilized free and reduced-priced lunch," Flanagan shared. "There were nights where I ate, and my mom said she simply wasn't hungry. It wasn't until I was an adult and I was a parent that I realized she was lying to protect me from the reality of our food insecurity... that she was hungry."

The lieutenant governor had a picture of her mother Pat next to the podium as she spoke, saying the bill was "the most important thing I've ever worked on in my life." 

"I call this bill the Pat Flanagan School Meals Act," Flanagan said with a smile.  

The school lunch bill won approval in the state Senate on Tuesday. It was a Democratic priority this session, but even a few Republicans crossed over as the Senate passed the bill 38-26. The House agreed to the Senate's version of the measure, sending it to the governor's desk. 

"Being hungry makes learning almost impossible," Democratic Sen. Heather Gustafson, of Vadnais Heights, the lead author, who is also a teacher, said earlier this week. "This is a bill that will ensure every student, K through 12, in Minnesota is going to get the food they need while they're at school."

Nearly 275,000 Minnesota students currently get free or reduced-price lunches. 

Gustafson said roughly one in six children are considered "food insecure," meaning they don't know when they will get their next meal. 

Around 18.5% of Minnesota students likely qualify for free or reduced meals but don't get them, she added, often because of instability within their families. And for families that are just over the poverty line or need a break, she said, guaranteed meals will mean one less thing to worry about.

Republican critics said the bill wasn't needed and that a better use of the money would be to focus instead on reading, writing and arithmetic.

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," GOP Sen. Steve Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, said earlier this week. "The people of Minnesota are paying in this bill over $400 million in taxes to pay for the lunches of kids, the majority of which are already having their lunches paid for by their families now."


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