Minnesota Senate passes bill for free school breakfast, lunch

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Minnesota schools are poised to offer free lunches and breakfasts to all students under a bill passed by the state Senate on Tuesday.

The Senate approved the free school meals bill on a bipartisan 38-26 vote. It now heads back to the House, where the bill already has passed but must be taken up again because its language was amended.

"We shouldn't make children pay the price or go hungry in school for problems that are out of their control," said state Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, the bill's sponsor. "Look at it like a lunchbox tax cut. It gives money back to families."

Gustafson estimated that a family living in White Bear Lake with two students would save nearly $1,900 each school year if they received the daily free meals.

Providing free lunch and breakfast to all students regardless of their family income is expected to cost about $200 million annually. Minnesota lawmakers have a $17.5 billion surplus on the bottom line to fund their priorities this year.

The bill could provide relief to Minnesota families who don't qualify for free or reduced-price school meals but still struggle to pay out of pocket for them.

Hunger Solutions, a school nutrition advocacy group, estimates that one in six Minnesota students are food insecure. Of those students, 25% are from households that don't qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

"There are some very real needs out there that this will help to address," said Sen. Jim Abeler, a Republican from Anoka who joined Democrats to vote for the bill. "Some might say that it helps a few who may not need the help, but actually I'm OK with that. There are a lot of pressures on a lot of families that this will take a load off of. They can invest their money elsewhere."

Supporters say giving students access to free school meals will help them perform better in the classroom because they won't be hungry. Critics have expressed concern about the bill's price tag, saying the state should provide free school meals only to those who struggle to afford them.

"This bill is going far beyond and saying that '100% of Minnesota students will get this assistance,'" said Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, who tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill Tuesday to impose a $500,000 annual income cutoff.

Several Republicans criticized Democrats for not directing the roughly $200 million in annual funding toward other pressing school needs.

Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said the money should be invested in efforts to improve reading, math and science proficiency.

GOP Sen. Zach Duckworth of Lakeville co-sponsored the bill although he shared his colleagues' concerns about its cost. But Duckworth voted to approve the bill, saying the benefits outweigh its flaws.

"I'm forced to ask myself, 'When it comes to the bill as it stands, does it do more good than bad?' " Duckworth said. "And to that I'd say, 'Let's feed our kids.' "

DFL Gov. Tim Walz included the universal school meals policy in his budget proposal earlier this year. He is expected to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.