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But it’s unclear if her bill will have support from the South Dakota Department of Education, fellow legislators, school boards or district administrators.
The bill failed on a 14-1 vote in the House Education committee Feb. 13, with proponents including Wittman, the food service director for the Meade School District, a student from a Sioux Falls high school and Sandra Waltman, lobbyist from the South Dakota Education Association. Opposition came from Graves and Sen. Jim Bolin (R-Canton), a former teacher.
Wittman not only wants the more than 38,000 South Dakota students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch to get the meals, but all of the more than 137,000 K-12 students, too. Those counts are the latest from the DOE, as of Dec. 27, 2022.
“I believe personally that the government has a moral obligation to provide free school lunches to students,” she said, noting other states (California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Vermont) also provide free school lunch on their own. “These children are in the care of the government. We wouldn’t ask inmates to pay for their own meals while they’re in the care of the government.”
Wittman said she’s spoken with Education Secretary Joe Graves during the last couple of months about what kind of school lunch bill he might support, but Graves would not answer questions from the Argus Leader about how those conversations have gone.
“As with any pending legislation, we will thoroughly evaluate it before taking a position,” DOE public information specialist Nancy Van Der Weide said in an email.
Graves did not respond to specific questions about his stance on free school lunch seven months after he testified against the bill and after more recent conversations with Wittman; or, if free school lunch is something the state could or should cover, considering the fiscal note with HB 1221 estimated an ongoing budgetary impact of $38.6 million.
That’s compared with the $96.8 million surplus the state ended fiscal year 2023 with, and the $115.5 million surplus the state ended fiscal year 2022 with, too. This summer, the state decided against applying for a federal program, the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, to provide $7.5 million to feed an estimated 63,000 children from low-income families over the summer.
Wittman said she sees her bill as something she might need to move slowly over time and could consider offering free lunch for families in the bottom 30-40% of incomes.
Lunch policy at the local level
In Sioux Falls this school year, the child nutrition department is trying something new: all students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are getting free school lunch. This is the first year the district has tried this approach, and it’s meant to serve as a pilot program to see how it’s received.
Funding for this pilot program is being covered by some money the child nutrition budget had in its reserves, child nutrition coordinator Gay Anderson explained, estimating that waiving the fee for students on reduced-price lunch costs the district about $116,000 this year. They typically pay $0.30 for breakfast and $0.40 for lunch.
“It’s an allowable expense for us to be able to do, and (we’re) trying to help out as many families as possible where we can,” Anderson told the Argus Leader. “That’s just kind of a common theme happening in districts across the country, and so we wanted to see if we could do it.”
There are a few more families qualifying for reduced-price lunch in Sioux Falls this year, too, Anderson said, compared with what the district saw last year at this time. She estimates it’s a 6% increase.
In the Sioux Falls School District, 42% of students or about 10,700 students were in the free or reduced-price meal program as of Dec. 6, 2022.
Anderson said she encourages more families to complete free and reduced-price meal applications for the district.
“We want to make sure we can capture anyone and everyone that would be eligible for that,” she said. “We are really working hard to get families that haven’t applied from last year to reapply now if they would qualify. It’s a big focus for everyone here in the district.”
Lessons in lunch
Waltman argued during the bill hearing in February the free school lunch bill would improve student achievement, eliminate the stigma from student debt and provide financial relief for all families in South Dakota.
Bolin countered that Wittman’s bill provided entitlement to families who could already afford to pay for school lunch, that it gives them an extra benefit, and that it teaches students that “everything is free and comes from the government.”
Graves said in February that HB 1221 could’ve caused the number of people filling out free and reduced-price lunch application forms across the state to decline, noting those forms correspond to numbers the federal government uses to determine funding for programs like Title I, which provides financial assistance to districts for children from low-income families and the federal teacher loan forgiveness program, for example.
However, he suggested that since a number of states have adopted universal free lunch programs, the federal government could come up with a new metric for those calculations.
Wittman noted an amendment to her bill would direct parents and guardians to complete free and reduced-price meal applications.
Graves also argued in February providing free lunch would teach students two lessons: Food is free, and it can be wasted. Wittman countered free lunch is an investment in the community’s future.
“One way that the government can show all community members that they’re investing in their future and working to support their family (is to) ensure all kids have access to nutritious meals,” Wittman said.
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Sioux Falls lawmaker pushes for free school lunches in South Dakota