Minnesota Becomes 4th State to Provide Free School Meals to All Kids

Four out of 50 states provide free school meals to kids. No wonder child labor is making a comeback.

By Kenny Stancil. Originally published at Common Dreams. 

Surrounded by students, teachers, and advocates, Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Friday afternoon signed into law a bill to provide breakfast and lunch at no cost to all of the state’s roughly 820,000 K-12 pupils regardless of their household income.

The move to make Minnesota the fourth U.S. state to guarantee universal free school meals—joining California, Maine, and Colorado—elicited praise from progressives.

“Beautiful,” tweeted Stephanie Kelton, a professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University.

UC-Berkeley professor and former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich wrote on social media: “Let this serve as a reminder that poverty is a policy choice. In the richest country in the world, it is absolutely inexcusable that millions of our children go to school hungry because they are living in poverty.”

An estimated 1 in 6 children in Minnesota don’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. But 1 in 4 food-insecure kids live in households that don’t qualify for the federal free and reduced meal program, leading to “mounting school lunch debts in the tens of thousands of dollars,” Minnesota Public Radioreported.

Tens of thousands of children are set to benefit from Minnesota’s new law, which could be operational as early as summer school in July. Some of them were there to thank Walz at the signing ceremony, where the sense of elation was palpable.

“As a former teacher, I know that providing free breakfast and lunch for our students is one of the best investments we can make to lower costs, support Minnesota’s working families, and care for our young learners and the future of our state,” Walz said. “This bill puts us one step closer to making Minnesota the best state for kids to grow up, and I am grateful to all of the legislators and advocates for making it happen.”

The Minnesota House—led by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, the state’s Democratic affiliate—first passed the bill in February in a 70-58 party-line vote. The state Senate—where the DFL holds just a single-seat advantage—approved it on Tuesday by a 38-26 margin. The state House rubber-stamped an amended version of the bill on Thursday.

In a now-viral clip from the state Senate’s debate over the bill earlier this week. Sen. Steve Drazkowski (R-20) questioned whether hunger is really a problem in Minnesota—even as the state’s food banks reported a record surge in visits last year, months before federal lawmakers slashed pandemic-era Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that is hungry,” Drazkowski said before voting against the bill. “I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that says they don’t have access to enough food to eat.”

During Friday’s signing ceremony, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (DFL) said, “To our decision-makers who believe they have never met someone who is experiencing or has experienced hunger: Hi, my name is Peggy Flanagan, and I was 1 in 6 of those Minnesota children who experienced hunger.”

“By providing free breakfast and lunch to all of our students, we are removing barriers and removing stigma from the lunch room,” said Flanagan. “We are helping family pocketbooks, especially for those 1 in 4 who don’t qualify for financial assistance with school meals. We are leading with our values that no child should go hungry for any reason, period.”

“This is an investment in the well-being of our children, as well as an investment in their academic success,” Flanagan added, calling the “generation-changing” bill “the most important thing” she’s ever worked on in her life.

As Minnesota Reformer reported: “The majority of Minnesota schools receive federal funding from the National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for each meal served, though it doesn’t cover the cost of the entire meal. Under the new law, schools are prohibited from charging students for the remaining cost, and the state will foot the rest of the bill—about $200 million annually.”

MPR noted that “the legislation is similar to a program that was introduced during the pandemic to provide meals for all students, but was discontinued at the end of last year.”

Last month, The Star Tribune editorial board opined that providing free breakfast and lunch to all of Minnesota’s students, including affluent ones, is “excessive.”

Pushing back against this argument for means-testing, Darcy Stueber—director of Nutrition Services for Mankato Area Public Schools and public policy chair of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association—asserted that meals should be guaranteed to all kids at no cost, just like other basic learning necessities.

“We don’t charge for Chromebooks and desks and things like that,” she told MPR. “It’s a part of their day and they’re there for so many hours. It just completes that whole learning experience for the child.”

Minnesota Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-60A), the bill’s lead author, made the same point to counter GOP lawmakers’ complaints following the initial passage of the legislation.

“We give every kid in our school a desk,” Jordan said last month. “There are lots of kids out there that can afford to buy a desk, but they get a desk because they go to school.”

Walz, for his part, stressed Friday that his administration is “just getting started” when it comes to boosting education funding.

“The big stuff,” said the governor, “is still coming.”

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  1. marcel

    What country is that where working parents don’t earn enough to provide food for their children?

    1. jackiebass63

      There are all kind of programs to help the poor and children.It probably isn’t income that is the problem in many cases. One parent families along with working or lazy parents are a problem. Raising children is expensive and hard work.Too many parents simply don’t accept the responsibility to raise their children. It needs to be federal because some states won’t spend money to feed children or for that matter anyone.

      1. mrsyk

        Huh? Victim blaming is not that popular around here. What “all kinds of programs”? Means tested, online application only unless you go to the county office, next available appointment seven weeks out, let’s blame the parents. Is there a program offering bootstrap assistance? FFS your comment is a cold hearted thing.

  2. Louis Fyne

    let’s go beyond the headlinea: so what are the kids going to eat? especially after the camerasgo away

    it isn’t a success if it is chicken nuggets and carrots and Taco Tuesday (industrial, processed food) My kids’ school lunch menu hasn’t since i was a kid (even in our avant garde NPR-listening school district)

    look at this US high schooler’s experience with a wee, of orean public school food https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=d4IJQjzmC6E

    1. mrsyk

      I thoroughly support healthy food in schools, and your intentions are clearly well meaning, but it’s also clear that you have never been food insecure (that’s polite talk for going hungry for lengths at a time). I would be pretty excited about chicken nuggets if I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. One battle at a time here, right?

      1. Louis Fyne

        the problem with most American public programs (pensions, housing, health care, transport, college, food stamps) is that the high-water mark is when the program is enacted. Rather being a foundation to which things are added, the opening point of a state program becomes a ceiling as mass interest moves on to the next topic of the day.

        Happy to be proven wrong, but if/when there is a state budget crunch will the lunch program be protected and/or added or will it go through death by 1,000 cuts?

        By throwing chicken nuggets at the problem, we’re just substituting one problem for another.

        1. Questa Nota

          When does some legislator’s brother-in-law get a sweetheart contract to provide those, uh, nuggets? And where on a chicken is that nugget located? Or is that fowlist? ;p
          Add in a dozen or so secret herbs and spices then push for the next contract on sauces. Then onto acne meds.
          How many adults eat that so-called food if they weren’t starving?

          1. mrsyk

            “How many adults eat that so-called food if they weren’t starving?” The fast food joints around here seem to be doing just fine. C’mon man, part of the problem is that a majority of Americans eat this shit and they’ve learned to like it. Sugar. Salt. Fat.

            1. JBird4049

              If you look at American cookbooks from the past 150 years, not that much has changed with the love of sugar, salt, and fat except current cookbooks try to nudge the cook into cooking food with less of it; both at home and at school, food was handmade by cooks.

              Today with have corporations making “food” with artificial ingredients with unpronounceable names and just stuffed with corn sweetener. It is poisonous garbage. Really, when I splurge and make a big cheeseburger with real cheese and meat at home, I never, ever get nauseous like I do with fast food, especially using organic. Much more expensive, true, but I am not hungry like I am soon after fast “food.” Of course, many people cannot afford real meat even hamburger especially organic.

              American cuisine has never been healthy especially with its emphasis on food that would give the calories needed for farm and manual work; during the Great Depression there was a hunger crisis as even before the depression Americans were spending roughly a third of their money on food. During it and in the two decades of the Second World War, the several presidents, congresses, and federal agencies made the very deliberate choice of emphasizing calories over nutrition. Vegetables and fruits had always been more affordable anyways. The assumption was probably get enough affordable calories into the people and the vegetables and fruits would take care of themselves.

              Since the 1970s, the various federal agencies that oversaw our food as well as Congress has been captured by Big Food; Congress has given subsidies to Big Food for decades with the FDA and USDA now the tools of said industry. Then add the corporatizing of many of the school lunch programs and the resultant crapitization of the food. And some of that has spread into the restaurants with most them now being corporate chains anyways.

              I can also add that fast food is not only cheaper and less time consuming than making fresh food at home. Also, fruits and vegetables are not subsidized or at least nowhere to the level of what is used by fast food. We also have the problem of groceries becoming less affordable due to the corporations deliberately raising the cost faster than the already high inflation.

              It is funny(?), but the federal government set out in the Great Depression to prevent hunger (and some of the deaths by starvation especially in the first winter in the cities), which worked for decades; now we are circling right back to where we were ninety years ago. It is true that this time it is housing, not food, that is eating the lion’s share, but after housing what is the single most important and often most expensive thing you have to pay for?

              Having been food “insecure” meaning really, really hungry, I appreciate that I can afford food now, even quality food. Something beside mac and pseudo cheese with margarine.

        2. mrsyk

          I’d be the last person to try to prove you wrong. Sadly, I agree with your opinion on how these things progress. However, I will not support an opinion that is basically saying these kids can starve until we get it right.

      2. Jeff

        Notice where obesity rates are today. Now look at school lunches.

        I’m in favor of this program, but the devil is in the details. How much is Kraft getting from this as opposed to local food co-ops that can feed kids food with fiber?

        Let’s quell excitement for programs until details are known. We have enough people on meds. Let’s do better at teaching kids better choices.

        It starts here.

    2. marym

      School districts post their menus on-line and there are state and federal guidelines, including availability of fruit and milk. I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak to the quality of school lunches in any particular school district, but as a taxpayer (not MN) I wouldn’t see chicken nuggets and carrots or taco Tuesday as incompatible with an attempt to provide nutrition, edibility from a kid’s perspective, and some degree of choice.

      Some quick search results:

        1. marym

          We should ask questions and I should defer to information from parents and others with direct experience. I’m sure there’s local variation even within a state.

          However, for 3 of the 4 states offering universal meals I’ve posted links to menus, standards, and other information with references to fresh produce, salad and salad bars, fruit juice and milk, in-house food preparation, menu choices, and attempts eliminate processed food. The Colorado menus list fruit and vegetable “variety” that includes fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruit; and an an array of vegetables none of which are ketchup, and which include several different preparations of potatoes.

          I applaud this universal material benefit, and any efforts to make the benefit more robust.

    3. LY

      Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on fortified bread with whole milk is better nutrition then most kids would choose, poor or not. I mean, look at what is heavily marketed – breakfast cereal, chips, and sugary beverages.

      I dream of feeding our kids what Japan or France feeds their kids, but lets do what we already know can be done.

      1. Piotr Berman

        I liked daily kimchi for Korean kids. That would kill American kids, except for those from families that keep Indian, Indochinese, Korean etc. eating traditions.
        Chicken nuggets are not bad per se, the question is of amount and balance with other food groups.
        One social aspect of mean-tested meals vs meals for all kids is (a) segregating poor kids for the meal time (b) quality and nutrition standards. With nutrition standards, I have seen videos from a country where central government tried to improve them, and kids hated it, they would rather starve. Kids grow and do not have issues of 30+ year old, so one should be less stingy with salt, sugar and fat, but without going to extreme of ketchup as a vegetable (I wonder who remembers that).

        1. JBird4049

          Yes, I remember some presenter on Fox News said ketchup was made from tomatoes and was basically a vegetable. What a tool.

  3. spud

    as a life long citizen of minnesota, i have fond memories of morning milk breaks with sandwiches in school, that was under the new deal. walzt and company should take a hearty bow,

    i fondly remember lunches also, on sloppy joe day, i remember a friends older brother nicknamed moose always showed up that day for sure, he broke his own record of 24 sloppy joes.

    since bill clinton, kids are now the enemies, that need to be worked.

  4. Louis Fyne

    How many Minnesota kids literally starved to death for want of calories—outside of abusive houses?

    Likely literally none.

    How many Minnesota kids have awful education outcomes because they are fed a diet industrialized food full of sugar and simple carbs, a lot. in my opinion.

    We have a crisis of nutrition, not of calories.

    honest question: are the 1st to 3rd states w/free school lunches opening above and beyond for the meals—or are they throwing out chicken nuggets and fries from Aramark or Sysco? (but, but the kids love chicken nuggets!)

    I will be happy to be proven wrong if the Minnesota government ponies up the very considerable sum of money for wholesome, balanced meals—-not a diet of chicken nuggets or pizza or fries from Aramark.

    not holding my breath

    1. marym

      Again just randomly searching:




    2. spud

      my aunt worked in the kitchen, it was all hand made. as far as hunger goes, its rampant all over america.

      is this law perfect? most likely not. will this law allow schools to experiment, most likely yes. give it time. it will take decades, perhaps a century or more to over turn bill clintons disastrous policies.

      1. mrsyk

        Also from the CUNY study; “Many New Yorkers continued to report difficulties in getting the food they needed, but of particular concern is the impact on households with children under the age of 18. About one in three of these households reported that since the epidemic started a child had lost weight and almost one in four reported that a child had been hungry because they couldn’t get enough food to feed them. These are the major findings of the 12th city and statewide tracking survey from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy (CUNY SPH), conducted on May 29th and 30th.”

      2. mrsyk

        More. “For pediatricians, food insecurity that results in weight loss is a warning sign for more serious nutritional problems in children. Reports that one in four children are experiencing hunger suggest that New York City must strengthen efforts to reduce child hunger, especially as the federal income supports created in the first months of the epidemic run out.”

        1. JBird4049

          I read that teachers, even some school administrators, were worried about their students going hungry during the quarantine being as often the only guaranteed meals of the day were from the school.

          Great. Get Covid or starve. Gotta love my country.

          1. Jeff

            It’s almost like lockdowns were a terrible idea or something where kids paid the highest price. Or something.

  5. polar donkey

    My kids go to school in Mississippi. During covid (when the government still acted like it cared) Mississippi used covid funding to provide breakfast and lunch to every child free. Best thing they ever did, especially in a state as poor as Mississippi. Of course, they stopped it.

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