Schoolchildren in 8 states can now get free school meals, back Congress and call for statewide policy

ST. PAUL, Minnesota (AP) — When classes resume after Labor Day, Amber Lightfeather won’t have to worry about where her kids’ next meals will come from. You will be free.

Minnesota, New Mexicocolorado, vermont, MichiganAnd Massachusetts will make school breakfast and lunch permanently free for all students starting this school year, regardless of family income, following in the footsteps of California And Maine. Several other states are considering similar changes, and congressional supporters want to offer free meals to all children statewide.

Lightfeather, who has four children who attend public schools in Duluth, Minnesota, said her family was sometimes entitled to free or discounted meals but would have had to pay next school year had Minnesota not made the change. Her earnings as a hospital worker and her husband’s as a tribal worker would have crossed the line. Last year, the family paid over $260 a month for school meals for all four children, who are hungry, ages 10, 13, 16 and 17.

She felt so empowered that she testified on Minnesota’s school lunch bill when it was introduced to lawmakers last winter. The students hugged Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, as he signed the law into law at their Minneapolis elementary school in March.

“I cried when I found out they finally passed. I have not only testified for my own children. I testified for every child who could benefit,” Lightfeather said.

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Schools across the country offered free meals for all at the height of the pandemic, prompting a surge in participation. But when federal aid ran out In the spring of 2022, most states returned to providing free or discounted meals only to qualifying children. This excluded families who were not poor enough, stigmatized those who were poor enough, and increased debt for school meals.

“We know that students learn better when they are well nourished,” said Emily Honer, director of nutrition programs at the Minnesota Department of Education. “And we know that students often don’t know where their food should come from. We take that (fear) away.”

In New Mexico, where educators and policymakers have long talked about the link between poverty and educational outcomes, most students were eligible for free or discounted meals even before the new law was signed in March.

Still, Albuquerque Public Schools saw an immediate surge in participation. And for the first seven days of the school year that started this month, breakfast and lunch numbers increased by 1,000 a day.

The cafeteria at Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque was bustling with activity Tuesday as dozens of students set out lunch tables with bright blue trays full of vegetables, rice and teriyaki beef.

Lorraine Martinez, the school secretary, said some children suffered from stomach cramps or felt dizzy because they didn’t have enough to eat.

“Now everyone has the food, the water and the milk – the nourishment – that they need,” she said.

Many families will still struggle to afford school meals in other states. Annette Nielsen, executive director of Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center in New York City, said breakfast and lunch could cost parents $1,500 per student per year.

“Don’t we want kids to do well in school and have good, nutritious, and healthy meals throughout their studies?” Nielsen asked. “I think that’s the least we can do.”

The Minnesota Legislature committed over $440 million for the first two years of the program despite Republican complaints about subsidizing families that can afford to pay. Minnesota Department of Education Honer said she’s encouraged by how many private and charter schools are planning to participate.

Stacy Koppen, director of nutritional services at St. Paul Public Schools, said her district could provide universal meals at 60 schools this year, up from the 40 that qualified last year for a federal program that gives all students in schools with high- End-schools provides free meals to populations from low-income families.

“You can just come to school and focus on learning,” she said.

The new law is also a boon for Minnetonka, in a Minneapolis suburb known as wealthy. Superintendent David Law said about 8% to 10% of the district’s students were eligible for free or discounted lunches before the pandemic, and that many families weren’t eligible but were also unable to spend $20 per child per week .

Law said it’s also a benefit that serving breakfast is now mandatory. Previously, his schools struggled to fill vacancies in the hospitality field for part-time lunchtime-only positions. Now his cafeterias are almost full because the extra hours make those jobs more attractive. More staff and the extra government money should help improve the quality and variety of meals, he said.

“I think it’s going to be an all-around win,” Law said.

In New Mexico, education officials said the new law means more than 3,000 additional students now have access to free meals, and that as New Mexico also requires schools to modernize their kitchens, more meals can be prepared from scratch.

Alexis Bylander, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center in Washington, DC, said momentum is building. She noted that some states have taken at least incremental steps to make meals more affordable. Connecticut is using federal stimulus money extend free meals to more students this year. Pennsylvania plans free breakfast. Illinois passed a free school lunch policy for all this year, but did not allocate funds to implement it. New York City and some other local communities generally offer free meals.

US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and US Representative Ilhan Omar introduced another bill in May that would expand free meals to all states. Though unlikely to move forward in this divided Congress, Bylander says it sets out a vision of what’s possible.

“While the eight state guidelines are great and we believe more will be passed in the near future, we truly urge Congress and emphasize the need for a statewide policy so that all children benefit,” Bylander said.

Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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