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Minnesota lawmakers advance universal school lunch bill

Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL Vadnais Heights, said the bill would ease financial stress on families and help students thrive in school.

School lunch
Elijah Harding, a second grader at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School, gobbles down a slice of pepperoni pizza during lunch. Duluth is one of the districts in the state that gives kids who receive reduced price lunch a hot lunch regardless of their account status. A report released this week by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid shows that a majority of school districts either offer a cold lunch or give no lunch when a student's account shows a negative balance.
Bob King / File / News Tribune
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ST. PAUL — A plan to ensure all Minnesota students have access to free breakfast and lunch at school is already moving through the Legislature as Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers and the governor work toward a budget they say will prioritize education and families in the state.

Bills in the House and Senate would require schools in the federal school meals program to provide free lunch and breakfast to all students. At a Senate Education Policy Committee hearing Wednesday, Jan. 18, bill sponsor Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said the bill would ease financial stress on families and help students thrive in school.

“Often we go into our communities and we say that we'll work hard to keep money in the pockets of the families that we represent. This bill would do just that,” she told the committee as she presented her bill, later adding: “Universal meals in our schools isn't a publicity stunt. And it isn't just a nice thing to do. It's a critical policy that will improve the lives of thousands of Minnesota students and families.”

About one-third of Minnesota’s more than 800,000 public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to Department of Education estimates. The Hunger-Free Schools coalition, which includes Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and food bank Second Harvest Heartland, estimates one in six Minnesota children don’t have consistent access to nutritious food.

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Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights

Gustafson and advocates testifying in favor of the bill said poor nutrition can make student performance suffer. And giving all students access to the same food can reduce lunchroom stigma, they said.

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“Many children are embarrassed to be seen receiving free meals and this could lead to feelings of shame and isolation,” Gustafson told the committee. “By providing free meals to all students, we can eliminate the stigma, create a more inclusive and equitable school environment.”

It’s still hard to say exactly how much universal free lunches would cost Minnesota, though past estimates have placed the cost at about $185 million each year. Gov. Tim Walz in his education budget proposal released Tuesday called for a total of around $813 million for the program in the next four years.

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The final picture of the price tag will become clearer as lawmakers work through the state’s budget in the coming months, though DFL lawmakers and Walz have both signaled that boosting funding for education and family assistance programs are top priorities now that the DFL has complete control of state government. A big part of the conversation is how lawmakers will make use of the state’s record $17.6 billion surplus — though much of that is one-time cash that won’t be around for future programs.

Other states such as California and Maine have already enacted universal lunch programs. Colorado voters in November approved a new tax on its wealthiest residents to create a free school lunch program.

The Senate Education Policy on Wednesday moved the free lunch bill to the education Finance Committee. The House is also set to take up universal meals in its education finance committee at a later date.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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