Jan 10, 2024 - News

Minnesota schools served 1 million more lunches in first month of universal free meals

Gov. Tim Walz, in a white shirt black apron and hat, serves school lunch to kids via a cafeteria line

Gov. Tim Walz, who signed the free lunch law, served chicken to students at a school in Maplewood on Wednesday. Photo: Torey Van Oot/Axios

The number of breakfasts and lunches served by Minnesota schools jumped 16% last September, which marked the first full month of class since the start of a new state program making meals free for all students.

Driving the news: Schools across the state dished up 15.9 million meals, up from 13.7 million the year prior, the Minnesota Department of Education announced Wednesday.

Catch up fast: The new law, passed by the DFL-majority Legislature last year, provides no-cost breakfast and lunch to Minnesota's 800,000-plus students, regardless of their family's income.

  • Supporters say the program, modeled after a pandemic-era federal benefit that expired in 2022, will address food insecurity and make life easier for parents.

State of the lunch line: Interest in the program has been higher than anticipated. A fiscal impact analysis conducted last year projected a 4% increase in meals served for the entire school year.

  • But school districts served 1 million more lunches in September alone, an increase of 11% over the same period in 2022. Breakfasts were up 31%.

The catch: The demand, plus higher-than-anticipated food reimbursement rates, mean the program is expected to cost the state $80 million more than planned in its first two years.

  • That's prompted some Republican lawmakers to question whether the state should be extending free lunch to wealthy families on the taxpayer's dime.

The other side: Gov. Tim Walz told reporters Wednesday that he thinks the extra money is worth it to ensure all kids can eat without stigma.

  • "Children learn best when their stomachs are full," he said.

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