Free school meals law begins in Minnesota this school year

Every student in Minnesota can get two free meals a day under a new law taking effect this school year aimed at improving both educational outcomes and your family budget.

Children lined up for pizza, salad, fruits, and vegetables on Wednesday at South St. Paul Secondary. The line you won’t see here, or in any Minnesota schools as of this fall, is the checkout line.

Gov. Tim Walz signed a universal school meals bill that took effect July 1, guaranteeing two free meals a day for every student. It’s a big stress reducer for Duluth mother Amber Lightfeather, who was always just above the maximum income for free and reduced meals.

"This is really an immense burden that’s being lifted off my shoulders and a lot of other families," she said.

State Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, shepherded the bill through the legislature, drawing on her own experience as a teacher. She says her weekly grocery shopping excursions usually included getting a bag of food for hungry students.

"It was like a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, honey, anything that was sort of shelf-stable," Gustafson said.

Research shows serving up free school meals is linked to better grades and less bad behavior.

"That’s the fuel to learn, right?" said Leah Gardner, the policy director for Hunger Solutions Minnesota. "When you have access to that high in nutrition food then you’re going to do better throughout the school day."

Passing the bill was a top priority for the nonprofit. The group estimated almost 35,000 students in the state were food insecure, but didn’t qualify for free or reduced meals.

In Gustafson’s experience, that meant a lot of kids struggling in the classroom.

"There is no math worksheet, there is no reading program, there is no computer curriculum or anything that is going to matter if a kid is trying to learn on an empty stomach," the state senator said.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, students getting free school meals also end up eating healthier diets, with better access to fruits and vegetables.

The programs come with a cost, though. Feeding 820,000 Minnesota students is expected to run $200 million a year — about one percent of the annual education budget.

"What is more important than feeding our young people and making sure that our future is as bright as possible?" Gardner said

The benefit to students isn’t convincing enough to taxpayers footing the bill, Gustafson says it saves the average family about $1,800 a year.

"The money that we save not paying into school meals is going to go into the community," said Duluth mother Lightfeather.