Politics and Government

As hunger rises in Minnesota, House passes school meals for all bill

A man wearing gloves holds containers of stew.
Chef J.D. Fratzke packs containers of chickpea curry stew on March 31, 2020 at Jackson Elementary School. School lunches were free for a time during pandemic because of a federal infusion of cash. Now state lawmakers want to make that permanent.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

More school meals would be delivered to students free of charge under a bill with traction in Minnesota’s Legislature, part of a broader push to address food insecurity.

The DFL-led House passed a plan Thursday night guaranteeing one daily breakfast and lunch to every student who wants one. Money to cover the costs would go to almost every public district, charter schools and some parochial schools. The vote was 70-58.

“We do have some meal programs already, but a quarter of hungry kids in Minnesota schools do not qualify for those programs,” said Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis. “And so with this bill, this will ensure that every child has the tools — breakfast and lunch — to succeed in school.”

Currently, families under a certain income threshold qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, much of it covered by federal money. This bill expands it to all students regardless of family income, and the state would absorb more costs.

Children could still bring a bag lunch if that’s their preference, and a la carte options wouldn’t qualify.

“This isn’t a Gatorade-for-all bill,” Jordan said. “This is a meals-for-all bill.”

Woman speaks at podium
State Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, talks about her bill to have the state cover costs of free breakfast and lunches at Minnesota public schools. The House passed the bill on Thursday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Some schools say they’ve seen a rise in unpaid meal debt since a pandemic-era universal meal initiative ended.

Schools must offer both breakfast and lunch service to qualify for the money. They’d have to be part of an existing federally supported meal program, which officials say virtually all of the state’s districts are.

The program would add $387 million in state education expenses over the next two years. That would rise in future years.

Some Republicans questioned whether well-off families should be put on par with those with a clear financial need. 

Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, called the meals-for-all design a "shotgun approach" that fails to prioritize.

“Wealthy families are not asking for this,” Bennett said. “They can pay for their lunches.”

A group of six people work around food preparing meals.
Volunteers with South Central Minnesota Food Recovery prepare meals to be sent to a local food shelf in Mankato on July 21, 2022.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Rep. Ben Bakeberg, R-Jordan, said he’s overseen a school lunchroom as a teacher and principal. He challenged the idea that school lunch debt will go away, noting that some students augment their standard meal with add-ons.

“What this bill does not do, it does not ensure that every student will be full. It does not do that,” Bakeberg said. “Kids are saying I need extra entrée. I need ala carte and kids continue to be hungry because of the federal lunch guidelines.”

GOP lawmakers chided DFLers for giving rich families a backdoor tax cut by eliminating school lunch fees. They said they’d rather have the money go to other forms of tax relief.

Republicans proposed amendments that would impose income limits and redirect extra money to other school funding programs, but the amendments failed.

Some Republican lawmakers have also questioned whether administration of the program would add burdens to local districts, not all of which offer multiple meals per day.

Food shelf visits rise as shown in graph
Minneapolis-based Hunger Solutions of Minnesota says data tracking food shelf visits over the last two decades shows the remarkable rise food aid providers reported last year, over 2021.
Graphic via Hunger Solutions

Colleen Moriarty, executive director of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Hunger Solutions, said it might actually ease burdens because they won’t have to chase down forms to qualify students for meal support.

“People don't get into the nutrition business in schools because they want to police kids. They want to feed children,” she said. “So what it eliminates is the paperwork of carrying debt.”

A corresponding Senate bill has one more committee stop. But Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said she hopes to win passage before the rest of the education budget is set so schools have time to plan.

“If you think about how public schools or any schools operate, right about now is when they start planning for next year, and this is something that they need to know sooner rather than later,” Gustafson said. “I don't think it's smart or responsible to wait until May or June to find out whether or not this is happening. Schools are planning for their upcoming school year now and they need this information.”

The expanded meal money wouldn’t be in place until summer school, with full takeoff expected in the fall.

Gov. Tim Walz included money for a universal school meals program in his recent budget proposal.

Meanwhile, the House unanimously passed a separate bill Thursday that  would make a $5 million infusion to emergency food shelves. 

A food shelf with many shelves with no food on it.
The Channel One Food Shelf and Food Bank in Rochester, Minn. were hit hard with increased demand and decreased supply.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The bill would immediately restock a fund that has run short as food shelf visits rise.

“We know just with the combination of the cost of eggs and milk going up dramatically, and many people that now having this new wave a third of the population that's utilizing shelves are brand new,” said Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead.

Hunger Solutions issued a report this week showing that food shelf visits rose by nearly 2 million last year and demand hasn’t let up. Food relief programs are also dealing with the same inflationary pressures as families they serve.

“Feeding Minnesota is an absolute priority,” Keeler said moments before the bill passed. “It's a scientific fact: If we're hungry, we're hangry and if we're hangry, we're not the best Minnesotans we can be.”