Walz signs the Universal School Meals bill into law in Minnesota

Flanked by students, teachers, advocates and state officials, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill Friday to provide free breakfast and lunch to students at participating schools. This makes Minnesota the fourth state in the country to do so.

During the signing ceremony, Walz told Minnesota parents that this will relieve some of the stress on them.

“If you’re looking for good news, this is certainly the place to be,” Waltz said. “I’m honored and I think this is one piece of the puzzle to reduce both child poverty and hunger insecurity.”

Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan also attended the ceremony. She said it was the most important thing she worked on.

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The legislation is similar to a program that was put in place during the pandemic to provide meals to all students, but ended late last year.

Students cheer as Gov. Tim Waltz finishes signing the free school meals bill into law Friday, which will cost the state of Minnesota nearly $400 million in the first two years and grow in price in the future.

Ben Hovland | MPR news

It will cost the state of Minnesota nearly $400 million in the first two years and will grow in price in the future. Covers the cost of meals, but not second portions or individual a la carte items.

Many, but not all, students in Minnesota qualify for free and reduced meals. This program is based on household income, and if families are below a certain threshold, their students can receive free or reduced-price school meals.

There is also a law in Minnesota that requires schools to provide the same meals to all students, even if their families are struggling financially. It is supposed to prevent “lunch shaming” practices, where children are denied meals or given substitutes, indicating that their family is struggling financially.

But even with these measures, there are still families who don’t qualify for free and reduced meals but struggle to pay for food. In many districts this year, that means mounting school lunch debts in the tens of thousands of dollars because there are families who don’t qualify for free lunch programs but are unable to pay.

This bill would cover all school lunches and snacks, even if families do not meet the current federal USDA household income guidelines.

A woman on a podium holds a photo

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan holds a photo of herself and her mother before signing a bill Friday. She talked about experiencing food insecurity as a child and dedicated the handing over of the free school lunch bill to her mother.

Ben Hovland | MPR news

Darcy Steuber is the Director of Food Services for the Mankato Area Public Schools and is also the Public Policy Chair of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association.

Stueber says her district sees just over $80,000 in school lunch debt at this point in the year, so there’s a definite need for it among families in her district. She says many of those struggling to pay are single-income households who work hard, don’t make enough to pay for meal programs, but make too much to qualify for free meals. Stuber says that providing food is just another basic necessity for learning

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

For students in Mankato, Steuber says it will make a big difference in a more relaxed, communal cafeteria. Kids won’t have to worry about racking up debt when they eat lunch, she says. And Steuber pointed out that kids can’t actually learn well when they’re hungry.

This bill only affects school meals. But some who work to feed hungry people say it will be a big help.

A man smiles and high-fives students as he walks

Gov. Tim Waltz smiles as students from Webster Elementary greet his arrival before signing the bill Friday. “I’m honored and I really think this is one piece of that puzzle to reduce both child poverty and hunger insecurity,” he said.

Ben Hovland | MPR news

Mary Wakecum is the Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Austin Public Schools. She also works with other food programs for her city and county.

“If we take care of the kids through this bill, maybe those are dollars that will hopefully go to another project that can address hunger,” she said.

Pupils will start receiving free school meals from the start of the next school year, which starts in September for most schools.

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