DULUTH — A proposal to subsidize free lunches for Minnesota public school students was approved by a committee of the state legislature this week.
, which supporters call the “Hunger Free Schools Act,” would allocate $228.9 million to schools across the state to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all of their students this fiscal year and next. . The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been paying for this since the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that effort is set to end with the 2021-2022 school year.
“For the past two years, we have provided universal meals,” Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, told the News Tribune. “I’ve heard from families across the state — in northern Minnesota, in the metro, in small towns in southern Minnesota — that it’s made a difference for them.”
The House Education Finance Committee on
, agreed to “defer” the bill for further consideration in committee or possible inclusion in a future omnibus bill, which is a larger set of proposals that all broadly relate to an area of policy or government expenses, such as public safety or K-12 education. The proposals that legislators table are usually found in these larger bills.
The USDA has historically helped pay for school meals for students whose families earn less than certain federal thresholds, but those grants sometimes meant cheaper meals, rather than free, until relatively recently. Jordan’s bill would require any Minnesota school that participates in the USDA program to provide free lunch and breakfast to all students, regardless of family income.
Under normal circumstances, so to speak, students in a family of four with a
would be entitled to meals at reduced prices. Students in a family of four who earn less than $36,000 would be eligible for free tuition.
“We know there are many children in every district of the state who are not eligible for free and reduced-price meal programs and who are still food insecure,” Jordan said. “And I think it’s a right. We expect students to learn. We give them pencils and books, we should also give them milk and lunch.
The bill would also require eligible districts to apply for the ”
from the infant nutrition program of the Ministry of Agriculture. This provision subsidizes free breakfasts and lunches in schools where a sufficiently large proportion of the student population is eligible for other federal aid, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, without collecting applications from students’ families for the nutrition program itself.
The money set aside in HF1729 would, in essence, pay for free meals in districts that are not eligible for the federal eligibility provision, Jordan said.
A few state officials on the 18-member committee expressed doubts about the proposal on Tuesday.
“Those meals aren’t really free,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton. “We taxpayers pay for all of them, and almost everyone is a taxpayer of some kind.”
Erickson wondered why the bill didn’t include an opt-out for parents who can afford full-price meals or want to serve breakfast to their children before school. She also suggested increasing the nutrition program’s income threshold to encompass students whose families are just over it.
Jordan replied that parents have always been able to prepare breakfast for their children before school and that the bill would not prevent students from bringing their own lunch from home.
And Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls and Republican leader of the committee, wondered how the state could measure the success or failure of the bill, and whether school districts would be able to find enough staff. to make Jordan’s proposal work.
Darcy Stueber, director of food services for Mankato-area public schools and chair of public policy at the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, said it’s been a challenge for staff at childhood nutrition programs in Minnesota, but noted that the bill would actually extend a program that is already in place.
“We’re just asking for a continuation, basically, to keep feeding our students for free,” Steuber said. “The work is already done.”
You can reach Joe Bowen at 218-720-4172 or