Dec 13, 2022 - Politics

Minnesota governor revives pitch for free school meals

Illustration of a cafeteria lunch tray with a plate and silverware on it and on the plate there are fruits and vegetables making a smiley face.

Illustration: Victoria Ellis/Axios

A push to provide free meals to all Minnesota students is expected to get another look in the upcoming legislative session.

Driving the news: Gov. Tim Walz says he wants to use a slice of the projected $17.6 billion surplus to permanently reinstate the pandemic-era expansion of no-cost breakfast and lunch for kids.

  • State Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-Minneapolis) told MinnPost that passing a universal free lunch proposal that stalled last session is one of her “top education priorities.”

Why it matters: Kids can't learn when they're hungry, supporters argue. They estimate that one in four Minnesota children experiencing food insecurity live in homes that don't qualify for the federal free or reduced-cost lunch program.

By the numbers: An estimated 274,886 students in Minnesota — roughly a third of the public school population — are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, per the Minnesota Department of Education.

  • Expanding the program to cover all students would cost more than $180 million a year, according to the governor's last spending proposal.
  • The state added an estimated 90,000 kids to its free lunch roster this year as part of a federal pilot program that automatically enrolls students covered by Medicaid.
  • St. Paul, meanwhile, is spending $1.7 million to fill the gap and feed children and teens who no longer qualify.

Zoom out: Several other states, including Colorado and California, have moved to expand free lunch programs since federal funding expired over the summer.

The intrigue: The forms families fill out to qualify for free lunch are also used to determine how much funding schools receive to serve low-income students in other ways.

  • When lunch was free for all, parents had little incentive to fill out the paperwork, Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, told Axios. That resulted in a "pretty significant drop" in form submissions.
  • "We ended up helping the students on one hand, but then being harmed on the other hand by losing the compensatory funding," he said.

What we're watching: Rep. Sandra Feist (DFL-New Brighton) told Axios she's looking at ways to decouple the two issues by updating the underlying funding formula.

  • Alternatives could include using Census data or other metrics to determine which schools should get more aid, she said.

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