Feb 20, 2024 - News

Got milk? Minnesota may make cartons free for all students

Illustration of a milk carton with abstract shapes.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Minnesota might add free à la carte milk to its new universal school meals program.

Why it matters: Supporters say updating the law to allow students to take just a carton free of charge will ensure access to the nutritious drink and cut down on food waste.

The big picture: The popular free meals program has already proved more expensive than anticipated, and it's not yet clear how much the change would cost.

Catch up fast: The law, enacted last year, covers the cost of breakfast and lunch for all students, regardless of their family's income.

  • Schools across the state served 15.9 million meals in September — a 16% increase from the same period in 2022.

The catch: Currently, a student must take the whole meal order for the district to get reimbursed by the state.

  • Kids and teens who want only milk can typically buy it for about 50 cents, though prices vary by school.

What's happening: Some students who bring breakfast or lunch from home are asking why they can't have milk for free, DFL Sen. Heather Gustafson, author of the no-cost carton bill, told Axios.

  • School leaders told her that in some cases, those students are requesting a full cafeteria meal just for the drink, then tossing the rest.

What they're saying: Gustafson, who was also a lead author on the original law, said covering milk on its own will clear up confusion and make the program more efficient.

  • "We don't want people throwing out food in order to get a free milk. It just doesn't make sense," she said.

What we're hearing: Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said he thought the proposed bill would reduce food waste, based on feedback from district leaders.

  • But not all schools are seeing that happen. A spokesperson for St. Paul Public Schools, which used federal COVID funds to cover the cost of meals for all before the law passed, said the district has "seen a very low occurrence" of students tossing out food and keeping the milk.
  • A lobbyist for the Minnesota School Nutrition Association told Axios the group supports the proposal and helped craft the identical House version.

The other side: Republican Senate Leader Mark Johnson raised concerns about the price tag, pointing out that the program is already projected to cost $80 million more than planned in its first two years.

  • "It sounds like a great idea, but where are they going to find the money?" he said last week, citing a recent economic forecast showing that the dwindling surplus could flip to a deficit in future years.

What we're watching: The cost estimate. It'll be produced as the bill works its way through the legislative process.

  • Gov. Tim Walz told Axios he's "super excited" about the universal school meals rollout so far and would "absolutely" support a bill that cuts down on food waste.
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