Attempt to revive school lunch funding bill fails in North Dakota

Republican opponents of the bill said parents should be responsible for providing their children with lunches at school.

Long lunch tables with circular seats at them are crowded with students, most of whom has lunch trays in front of them.
Students gather for lunch in the common area at Davies High School on Sept. 10, 2019, in Fargo.
Forum file photo

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Senate dealt a death blow on Tuesday, March 28, to a bill that would have expanded a free lunch program for schoolchildren from low-income families.

The Republican-dominated chamber rejected House Bill 1491 on Monday by a single vote, but supporters of the legislation pushed to revive it.

By rule, a senator who initially voted against the bill could ask for it to be reconsidered on Tuesday. Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, called for the proposal to be reconsidered Tuesday, but the Senate voted 20-27 to not reconsider the bill. That means several lawmakers who supported the legislation on Monday did not want it resurrected.

Tuesday's vote was a blind tally, so how each lawmaker voted was not disclosed.

The bill sponsored by Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo, would have dedicated $6 million over the next two school years to cover K-12 students' lunch costs if their family income is less than double the federal poverty level. The House approved the bill last month.


Families of four with incomes at or below $60,000 would have qualified for Hager's free lunch program in North Dakota, according to current poverty level income figures. A federal program already provides free meals to students from families making below 130% of the federal poverty level, so the state allocation would have applied to kids with family incomes between 130-200% of the poverty level.

Republican opponents of the bill said Monday that parents should be responsible for providing their children with lunches at school.

“I can understand kids going hungry, but is that really the problem of the school district? Is that the problem of the state of North Dakota?" said Sen. Mike Wobbema, R-Valley City. "It’s really the problem of parents being negligent with their kids."

Proponents of the bill argued that it represented a low-cost measure that would directly benefit children.

After the Senate officially disposed of the bill Tuesday, Nick Archuleta, president of teachers' union North Dakota United, said the Senate missed an opportunity to give relief to struggling families.

"I understand the argument about personal responsibility, but these are children. Children aren't responsible for providing their own lunches — adults are," Archuleta said. "When adults fail them for whatever reason, I think the state has a role to step in just to make sure these kids are fed."

Archuleta is hopeful supporters of expanding free school lunches can work with House budget writers to add funding for the program in a separate bill later this session.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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