DFL plan to pay for school meals gets first legislative hearing

Minnesota would become the fourth state in the nation to make school meals free for all students under a bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday.

Advocates for years have tried to enact similar proposals, but there’s reason to believe this will be the year they succeed.

The legislation is a priority for Gov. Tim Walz and fellow DFLers, who control both the House and Senate. And the price tag of roughly $200 million a year would leave plenty of money for other priorities given the projected $17.6 billion state budget surplus for the upcoming biennium.

“Universal meals does seem to be a freight train with a lot of momentum,” said Matt Shaver, policy director for EdAllies, which promotes policies that help disadvantaged students.

Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, is sponsoring the House bill, which got a favorable hearing Wednesday before the education policy committee.

“Food is essential to children’s learning,” she said.

The bill would require all school districts to participate in the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows districts to directly certify for free meals all students in a high-poverty school or group of schools based on their families’ enrollment in other government welfare programs.

That requirement would ensure schools take full advantage of all possible federal funding before the state covers the rest.

At the school level, it means students of all income levels would get one free lunch each day, paid for by the federal and/or state government. Breakfast would be provided, too, in participating schools.

Students in both public and private schools would benefit.

GOP opposition

The bill garnered some Republican support in the committee Wednesday, but not before lawmakers tried to amend the bill to take a more narrow approach to expanding school meal access.

Today, Minnesota fully covers school meals for families making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

Rep. Krista Knudsen, R-Lake Shore, proposed raising the threshold to 250 percent – about $69,000 in annual income for a family of four.

“Rather than a universal program that subsidizes parents financially able to pay for the care and feeding of their children, we can increase the current income threshold to help more families,” she said.

Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said the legislation seems to contradict DFL values by sending money to more affluent families and those enrolled in private schools. And she worried that the program will prove unsustainable in time.

“It’s a rather shotgun technique instead of a surgical approach,” she said. “We have a surplus now, but in two years we could very well be in a deficit.”

Adosh Unni with the Minnesota Department of Education said such an amendment would create more work for the state and school districts, rather than easing the administrative burden as the original bill would do.

“A kid is a kid is a kid,” Unni said. “All kids deserve access to meals, regardless of who they are and where they’re coming from.”

Walz planned a media event Wednesday in Rochester to promote the school-lunch proposal but postponed it because of the icy roads. He’s expected to include free school meals in his budget recommendation later this month, just as he did last year.

Free pandemic meals

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress made school meals free for all U.S. students to ensure children didn’t go hungry. After two years, they declined to keep that funding going.

That left most Minnesota families to either pay for school meals or send one from home, while low-income families again had to prove their eligibility for free meals.

However, that two-year run of free meals inspired action in other states.

Lawmakers in California and Maine passed laws in 2021 that will permanently pay for school meals for all, just like Minnesota now is considering.

Massachusetts, Vermont and Nevada lawmakers made lunches free this school year but not permanently.

And in Colorado, voters in November approved a ballot measure that will pay for universal school meals by raising taxes on households earning at least $300,000.

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