Lawmakers look to end lunch shaming, propose 2 years of free lunch for North Dakota public school students

Another bill would direct schools not to deny students meals, not take away food, not stigmatize students and not limit a student’s participation in activities because of meal debt.

A child holds a full lunch tray in a bustling lunch room.
Fargo Roosevelt Elementary students grab lunch in the school cafeteria on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.
David Samson / The Forum

BISMARCK — A pair of bills introduced in the North Dakota Legislature hoping to provide universal free lunches and to end lunch debt shaming for students in public schools have received bipartisan support.

House Bill 1491 is asking for an appropriation of $89.5 million from the general fund to provide free lunches to students enrolled in public schools starting July 1, 2023, and continuing for two years. Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo, sponsored the bill, which is co-sponsored by five other Democrats and one Republican.

During the hearing on the bill on Monday, Jan. 30, Hager said she will be adding an amendment to make the policy, if passed, long term. Every day, about 32,000 students eat breakfast and about 90,000 eat lunch provided by public school districts, according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

House Bill 1494, a companion bill to HB 1491, received wider bipartisan support and would direct schools not to deny students meals, not to take away food from a student, not to stigmatize students and not to limit a student’s participation in school activities because of meal debt. Rep. Zachary Ista, D-Grand Forks, introduced the bill, which has 11 other lawmakers co-sponsoring.

Ista, who also backs the free lunches bill, became aware of the affordability problem related to school meals while campaigning for reelection this fall.


“School meal affordability has become a growing concern for families since COVID-era federal funding for school meals stopped at the beginning of the school year,” he said.

Year-end meal debt totals in bigger school districts like Bismarck and Fargo have increased to $60,000, with Fargo on track to outpace the largest year-end meal debt on record, accruing around $32,000 in less than four months, according to data provided by the district in December.

An average of 34.3% of public school students across the state since 2017 use the free and reduced lunch program, according to the NDDPI. Numbers do not include pandemic years, as federal dollars were used to provide students with free meals.

Costs for breakfasts for all North Dakota public schools over a two-year period would be nearly $11 million, while free lunches over the same time period would cost the state roughly $72 million, according to data released from the NDDPI.

Testimony in support of HB 1491 ranged from the educational benefits and better student behavior to helping working families and attracting people from outside the state to stay in North Dakota.

Ista said lack of sufficient nutrition leads to academic struggles and a possibility of emotional and behavioral outbursts in classrooms.

“If left unchecked, those issues can lead to more severe consequences later in life. By simply making sure every child, no matter their family’s income level, has access to nutritious food, we can do a lot to prevent these issues from happening,” Ista said.

Carel Two-Eagle, of Standing Rock, testified before the House and said she created a housing cooperative and works with single fathers struggling to raise and feed their children.


"What we have seen is the needs of the people who work the lowest end jobs, and they’re so frustrated because they just can’t seem to get where they need to go," Two-Eagle said.

“It’s not about how much this will cost, but how much it will benefit,” she said, adding that, if passed, the law would motivate children to learn better and later help them commit to staying in North Dakota.

During testimony, Hager said more than 12 million children across the United States live in food insecure households.

When members of the education committee asked Hager if an annual sum of $89.5 million was sustainable during the hearing, she said it was.

“I believe we are a wealthy state, and providing for our children is what we are here to do. I believe it is something sustainable in our state,” Hager said.

Ista is optimistic the bill will receive strong consideration from the Legislature. "We all know how important school meals are to working families across our state, and this is one way to help bring down costs for moms and dads,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Barta, R-Grand Forks, who supports the anti-lunch-shaming bill, said children should not be singled out because of a lack of funds. "That is an issue they do not have control over and therefore should not suffer from," he said.

Reports from across the nation about lunch-shaming policies in schools, like giving students who owe money cold cheese sandwiches and hand stamps as a sign of carrying unpaid debt, have alerted Ista to get ahead of any future problems in the state.


Heather Gades, Miss Bonanzaville 2023, talked about her experience with the ridicule and stigma of her family falling behind on school meal payments.

By the end of her junior year in high school, her family had a negative balance of about $1,000, she said. The school’s lunch monitor would remind her every day that she owed money, which classmates overheard.

Four days before she was going to graduate, the principal told her if she didn’t bring $700 to pay for school meals, she would not be able to graduate.

“In a small town, word spreads, people talk. ... It is never right to publicly humiliate a child because of their family’s financial situation,” Gades said.

Karen Ehrens, former coordinator of Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition, is preparing to go to Washington, D.C., to work on economic policy related to food and health issues at the federal level.

Ehrens supports both bills, saying they’re a “great effort to help make sure every student has access to meals as part of the school day.” Not only will the bills help families save money, school districts will be able to eliminate administrative costs and free up time needed to manage free and reduced lunch programs, she said.

Although no one spoke in opposition to the bills during the hearing, opposition is expected, Ehrens said. She noted if school meals were free, meal shaming would also disappear.

“During the (COVID-19) pandemic, we experienced how it can be. People realized that we can do this as a society and support enough healthy food every day while children are at school," she said. "It has been a natural experiment."

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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