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Minnesota Senate backs free school meals for all students

While universal free lunch has been a top priority for Democrats this session, a few Republicans crossed over Tuesday as the Senate passed the bill 38-26.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Lunches and breakfasts would be free to Minnesota students regardless of income under a bill that won approval in the state Senate on Tuesday.

Universal free school meals for all students have been a Democratic priority this session. But even a few Republicans crossed over as the Senate passed the bill 38-26 and sent it back to the House for its final stamp of approval on some language changes before it goes to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz for his signature.

The state will pick up the difference between federal reimbursements and the actual costs. It's estimated that the program will cost the state about $400 million in a two-year budget period, or $200 million per year in ongoing spending.

“Being hungry makes learning almost impossible," said Democratic Sen. Heather Gustafson, of Vadnais Heights, the lead author, who is also a teacher. "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 now 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 would mean one less thing to worry about.

“We shouldn't make children pay the price or go hungry at school for problems that are out of their control,” she said.

Across the country, school officials say kids are hungry — just as pandemic-era benefit programs have lapsed — and there is growing concern about the effects on kids’ ability to learn. Soaring food prices are adding to strains on families who are now getting less financial assistance. Around 9 million children nationwide are food insecure, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

“I’ve been working on it for 17 years, so to me it’s just a wonderful day!” Colleen Moriarty of Hunger Solutions told KARE.

“All we wanted at the beginning was a fair chance for kids not to be shamed and disgraced at the lunch line and really the best way to do it is to provide universal lunch – no special tickets, no special code -- everybody gets in line, and everybody gets a lunch.”

The legislature had passed anti-shaming bills in the past, but it didn’t end the disputes between school and parents over unpaid bills.

Sen. Scott Dibble, who told colleagues he qualified for free lunches as a child, pointed out that many districts around the state still post ominous warnings about unpaid lunch bills.

“The are 124 published school policies posted on those district websites that communicate intentions to potentially and improperly refuse meal service or to give children alternate meals of varying quality,” Dibble explained.

The universal school meals bill has also been a priority for Legal Services Advocacy Project, which is part of Mid-MInnesota Legal Aid.

“In 14 years, we’ve passed a couple of laws around shaming, but schools are not set up to do this. School lunchrooms are set up like a business. There’s not a lot of nuances,” Jessica Webster of the Legal Services Advocacy Project told KARE.

“They don’t know how to handle it when a child shows up and doesn’t have money for lunch.”

Webster agreed with other proponents of the bill that nutrition should be treated the same any other classroom essential that everyone has access to regardless of ability to pay.

“We don’t make kids pay for their desks, for their teachers, for their chrome books. We have policies where we say, ‘This is an important piece of public education and we’re going to fund it.’   And this is an important piece of public education, and we should fund it.”

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. "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.”

Other Republicans said school districts that have already dealt with hunger issues should be free to use the money to meet other educational needs.

"The resounding message I got from my district is this is a solution looking for a problem that does not exist," Sen. Andrew Mathews, a Princeton Republican, told colleagues.

"Because the schools in my community have already solved all of the needs that this bill is purporting to do."


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