“Free” school meals for all students sounded like a good idea when Minnesota lawmakers approved the move earlier this year, but rising costs now have some questioning whether it was a mistake.
When Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed legislation this spring to provide free school meals to all students in the state regardless of income, advocates hailed the move as a big step toward reducing childhood hunger and removing the stigma on students who rely on them, MPR News reports.
Those meals, of course, are not actually free but rather paid for with tax dollars collected from state residents, including low-income families.
The price tag in Minnesota is estimated at $388 million over two years to cover students who don’t qualify for free meals under the national lunch and breakfast programs. The shift followed a federal exemption during the pandemic that offered free meals for all for a few years, and Minnesota is among eight states that have opted to foot the bill to continue the coverage.
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But Minnesota school districts are now reporting demand for school meals has increased more than expected, and a new budget forecast released this month shows it will cost taxpayers about $176 million more than expected over the next four years.
In Northfield Public Schools, nearly two-thirds more students are eating breakfast than last year, while demand for lunches is up 20%. It’s a similar deal with Roseville Area Schools, where 30% more students are eating school lunch and 50% more are eating breakfast, according to MPR News.
The situation is reigniting concerns from Republicans who opposed the transition to free school meals for all, who argue tax dollars should go to subsidize meals for students whose parents can afford them.
“All the low-income students who need, and we want to … make sure no one goes hungry, they were getting it through the (federal) free and reduced lunch program,” said state Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove.
The change, she said, “gave free lunch to all the wealthy families.”
“That’s a place I think we need to look at,” Robbins said. “Is that really a priority?”
It’s a question lawmakers will undoubtedly consider as they ponder financial strains in the coming years outlined in a forecast released this month.
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“Minnesota’s budget and economic outlook remains stable in the current biennium, but a significant structural imbalance constrains the budget outlook” for the biennium that starts July 2025, it read.
Walz has said the spending on free school meals is “an investment I will defend all day,” but recently called for fiscal restraint heading into 2024.
“We need to be measured in how we approach this,” he said. “If we’re cautious on this, we balance out in the out years.”
Research is now underway in Minnesota to gather more information on the students utilizing the free breakfast and lunch program.
In other states like Michigan, lawmakers have set aside special reserves in addition to initial funding to provide 1.3 million public school students free meals. Lawmakers in the Great Lakes State approved up to $185 million for the current school year, as well as $245 million in a school meal reserve fund for future expenses. Another $2.5 million was set aside for schools to apply for funding to erase meal debt, Bridge Michigan reports.
State Rep. Regina Weiss, D-Oak Park, told the news site the spending is based on previous participation rates, though school officials said they’re anticipating a 20% increase in participation, or more.
Lori Adkins, nutrition consultant for Oakland Schools, and others are pushing for schools to boost the number of students eating school meals by serving breakfast in the classroom for elementary students, and at kiosks at entrances of high schools.
“We just feel like we never want to see a child go hungry or feel shame during mealtime,” Adkins told Bridge. “So that’s why this ‘school meals for all’ program in Michigan is so important.”
Like in Minnesota, Michigan Republicans have raised concerns about taxpayers footing the bill to provide school meals for families that can afford them, and how that might ultimately impact families that truly need the help.
“I just think we have to pay attention and make sure that the kids who need the program do get three square meals a day,” Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-North Muskegon, told Bridge.
Other states that have approved universal school meals include California, Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Vermont, and Massachusetts. In total, about 9 million students have access to the taxpayer-funded meals, EducationWeek reports.
“The estimated annual price tag for the federal government for the (national school food) program last year was reportedly $29 billion, up from $18 billion in 2019,” according to the education site. “That cost is likely to decrease, as states take on more of the burden.”