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Proposal to continue free in-school breakfasts, lunches advances in Minnesota House

HF1729 was "laid over" this week for consideration in a larger bill in the future. It would apportion $228.9 million over next school year and the remainder of this one to pay Minnesota school districts to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all of their students.

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Minnesota Capitol.
File / Forum News Service
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DULUTH — A proposal to subsidize free meals for Minnesota public school students cleared a committee in the state Legislature this week.

HF1729 , which proponents call the “Hunger-Free Schools Act,” would apportion $228.9 million for schools statewide to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all of their students in this fiscal year and the next. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been paying for that since the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that effort is set to end when the 2021-2022 school year does.

“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 across southern Minnesota — that this made a difference for them.”

The House Education Finance Committee on Tuesday, March 29 , agreed to “lay over” the bill for further committee consideration or potential inclusion in a future omnibus bill, which is a larger collection of proposals that all broadly relate to an area of government policy or spending, such as public safety or K-12 education. The proposals that legislators lay over typically end up in those larger bills.

The USDA has historically helped pay for in-school meals for students whose families make less than certain federal thresholds, but those subsidies sometimes meant cheaper, rather than free, meals, until relatively recently. Jordan’s bill would require any Minnesota school that participates in the USDA program to offer free lunch and breakfast to all students, regardless of their family’s income.

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Under normal circumstances, so to speak, students in a family of four with an annual income less than $51,000 per year would be eligible for reduced-price meals. Students from a family of four that makes less than $36,000 would be eligible for free ones.

“We know that there are many children in every district across the state that do not qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs that still have food insecurity,” Jordan said. “And I think it’s a right. We expect students to learn. We give them pencils and books, we should give them milk and lunch, too.”

The bill would also require eligible districts to apply for the “ community eligibility provision ” of the agriculture department’s child nutrition program. That provision subsidizes free breakfasts and lunches at schools where large enough proportions of the student body are 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 at districts that don’t qualify for the federal eligibility provision, Jordan said.

Committee back-and-forth

A few state representatives on the 18-member committee raised doubts on Tuesday about the proposal.

“These meals aren’t really free,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton. “We taxpayers are paying for all of them, and most everyone is a taxpayer of some sort.”

Erickson wondered why the bill didn’t have an opt-out clause for parents who can afford full-priced meals or who want to serve their children breakfast before school. She also suggested raising the nutrition program’s income threshold to encompass students whose families sit just beyond it.

Jordan replied that parents have always been able to make their children breakfast before school and the bill would not bar students from bringing their own lunches from home.

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And Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls and the committee’s Republican lead, wondered how the state might measure the bill’s success or failure, and whether school districts would be able to find enough staff to make Jordan’s proposal work.

Darcy Stueber, the director of food services for Mankato Area Public Schools and public policy chair at the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, said that it's been a challenge to staff child nutrition programs in Minnesota, but noted that the bill would, in effect, extend a program that’s already in place.

“We are just asking for a continuation, basically, to continue to feed our students at no charge,” Steuber said. “The work is already being done.”

You can reach Joe Bowen at 218-720-4172 or jbowen@duluthnews.com .

READ MORE EDUCATION COVERAGE
If teachers better focused on basics, perhaps the letter’s sweeping conclusions wouldn’t have been drawn, based on incomplete evidence.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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