Sep 5, 2023 - Education

Minnesota kids start school year with universal free 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

Lunch money is a thing of the past for the vast majority of Minnesota kids going back to school this fall.

Driving the news: A new universal school meals state law provides no-cost breakfast and lunch to Minnesota's 800,000-plus students, regardless of their family's income.

The big picture: Minnesota is one of six states making school meals free starting this academic year, bringing the total to eight. Supporters say the move will address food insecurity and make life easier for parents.

Catch up quick: At the start of the pandemic, federal officials expanded a program that covered the cost of breakfast and lunch for low-income students to include all pupils. The benefits for all expired last year and the burden of paying for school meals — which cost between $1 and $5.50 at schools across the state last year — returned for millions of kids nationwide.

  • This year, the DFL-controlled Legislature opted to permanently adopt the policy at the state level, extending the perk to the two-thirds of school children who didn't previously qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The price tag: An estimated $380 million in state funding for the first two years, with costs expected to grow in the future.

  • Critics have questioned whether paying for food for higher-income families who can afford the meals is a good use of taxpayer money.

How it works: Students opting for the free meal will have to take all items offered on a pre-set plate or tray, or, in schools that offer choices for entrées and sides, at least three items, including a fruit or vegetable, in order for the school to be reimbursed, per guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education.

  • Students do not need to apply or enroll in the universal meal program.

The catch: Students still have to pay for second helpings. À la carte options, including snacks, also require payment.

Of note: The state program is open to public, charter, and private schools that participate in the federal government's free and reduced-price meals program.

  • Kids who are homeschooled or enrolled in virtual-only schools are not eligible.

What we're hearing: The two-year "trial run" during the pandemic, when meals were free for all, means many districts have a pretty good sense of how to prepare for and meet demand, Association of Metropolitan School Districts executive director Scott Croonquist told Axios.

Yes, but: Many districts are still struggling to hire enough nutrition workers, part of a broader schools workforce crunch. Anoka-Hennepin recently raised pay for such workers to $17 an hour.

What we're watching: School officials are urging families to fill out the paperwork that was used to determine whether they qualified for free or reduced lunch in the past.

  • That's because the forms are also used to allocate other types of funding and services for both families and schools. District leaders have cautioned that a failure to collect that data could negatively impact their budgets moving forward.

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