Free meals for Minnesota students advance at Capitol, differences remain

All Minnesota students would get two free meals a day at school under a DFL proposal that advanced through a Senate committee Wednesday.

Gov. Tim Walz's administration estimates the proposal will cost $389 million over the next two years and $424 million in the two years after that. It's a priority for both the governor and DFL lawmakers, though they differ on how soon the free meals should start as part of a broader discussion about school aid.

All students got free meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this academic year the benefit ended in most states, including Minnesota. A Senate committee approved legislation to restart the benefit on a voice vote, sending it to another panel.

"This bill guarantees access to school meals just like we guarantee access to bathrooms and kickballs," said Matt Shaver of the advocacy group EdAllies. "You don’t have to use it, but it’s there if you need it."

Students whose families' incomes qualify them for free- and reduced-price lunches face a stigma that leads some to skip meals at school, advocates say. For some students whose families are homeless or poor, school provides their only meals of the day.

Ensuring students eat meals at school instead of cheaper, less healthy options at home will reduce childhood obesity rates, said Dr. Gigi Chawla, chief of general pediatrics at Children's Minnesota.

"When children don’t have access to the nutrition they need, they are less able to focus and more likely to experience developmental delays, which can impact their academic achievement from year to year," Chawla told lawmakers.

School administrators and Republicans have raised concerns that universal school meals will affect other funding that's tied to the number of students receiving free- and reduced-price lunches. Supporters of the policy have said there are workarounds to the issue.

Rift over timing

Walz and some legislative Democrats disagree over the timing of their education proposals, including free meals. On Tuesday, Walz rolled out a multi-billion dollar education package that kicks in during the 2023-24 school year.

Senate Democrats say schools need immediate aid. One day after Walz unveiled his proposal, the Senate DFL advanced their own $500 million relief package through its first committee.

The bill would send $180 million to school districts to pay for universal school meals this academic year. It also includes: $150 million and $100 million to plug funding gaps in English language programs and special education services, respectively, and $16 million for school transportation.

School administrators told lawmakers that they need more immediate help in addition to Walz's proposal.

"The governor’s budget recommendations...are going to be addressing the 2024-25 problem. But if it’s a problem in 24-25, it’s a problem this year as well. It was a problem last year, and in previous decades," Jim Grathwol, the lobbyist for St. Paul Public Schools, told the Senate Education Finance committee.

"The one-time money in (the $500 million Senate bill) is desperately needed and could immediately be put to use serving our students," said Chris Lennox, superintendent of Mounds View Public Schools.

A day earlier, when reporters asked Walz about the proposal for immediate school aid, the governor motioned for his new education commissioner to come up to the mic. The commissioner, Willie Jett, didn't respond to the Senate plan but instead called the governor's own proposal for the coming school year "visionary."