Ruth Davis recalls growing up living in Chicago public housing with a single mom who relied on public assistance programs to get by. Those programs made a difference in her life, but she says she wonders what would have happened had her mom made too much money, even by a dollar, to qualify.
“I think about how much life could have been worse for a person like me who hadn’t received those things,” Davis said. “Anything a dollar over and you’re feeling the poverty but you don’t qualify for anything.”
Those memories and her adult work as a social worker forms her passion around an issue known as universal school lunch. Rather than require families to fill out forms and prove eligibility for free or reduced price school meals, the idea is to just open the lunch line to everyone, without charge.
“Those are things a kid shouldn’t have to worry about, having a nutritious meal,” Davis said. “If we have resources to put those things in place, they should be in place.”
A few years ago, the issue didn’t make it to the top tier of education or social topics. But the pandemic changed that. And last week, Gov. Tim Walz again endorsed state funding to provide school lunches to all students regardless of family income.
During his remarks following the presentation of a new state economic and revenue forecast showing a $17.6 billion budget surplus, Walz mentioned a handful of specific programs he would support, and universal school lunch was on the list.
Walz will present his 2023-25 budget request on Jan. 24. Universal school lunch would cost the state roughly $185 million a year.
“We think we need to see universal meals so this food insecurity issue is taken away,” Walz said, adding increased mental health counseling, classroom support and a diversified teacher corps as other funding priorities in education.
Momentum for change
Davis has two children in the Mounds View school district, one in grade school and one in high school. She is active in district committees but has also made winning support at the local level for universal school lunch a goal.
Leah Gardner is the policy director for a coalition of organizations and companies called the Hunger Free Schools coalition. She said Walz’s mentioning of the project is evidence that the campaign has momentum.
“We’re really well positioned with strong commitment and understanding of the importance of school meals for all,” she said. The support of the Walz administration “means it is really top of mind for them, because we have been in frequent communication on the overall issue of school insecurity.”
Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, said she is having legislation drafted for introduction when the 2023 session convenes next month.
“We have the money for it, we have the moral argument, and it is one of my top education priorities,” she said.
Currently, school meals are available for sale to all students but are subsidized at a reduced charge or free under the national school lunch program for students who are low-income. That income level is 185% of the federal poverty level or lower. For a household of four, that is around $51,000 a year. Schools take applications to assure eligibility and often run awareness campaigns to encourage families to apply.
Still, many families do not. And as students get older and reach middle and high schools, fewer apply.
Pandemic help for school lunch
But one of the federal government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic was to waive eligibility requirements and provide additional money to let schools provide meals to all students. That’s about 50 million students nationally and increased the federal price tag for the program from $19 billion a year to $30 billion a year. It lasted through the end of the summer of 2022 and, despite some attempts in Congress to extend it, it was not in place when school began in September.
Since then, a handful of states – Massachusetts, Maine and Colorado permanently and Vermont and Nevada temporarily – have used state money to keep the plan. The Colorado program was approved by voters there last month by a 55% to 45% margin and will tax high earners to pay for it.
The return to the pre-pandemic system has been noticed in schools and among families, Gardner said.
“Transitioning back to families having to pay for meals has been really difficult this fall, as we expected,” she said. “I think that is where some of the heightened interest is coming from. We’re now seeing this impact schools and families.”
Walz also spoke of seeking ways to quickly get money into the hands of working families, renewing his pitch for tax rebate checks of $1,000 per taxpayer. Gardner said lifting the cost of school lunches would return $80 or so per student per month to families.
Money wouldn’t be an issue, though there will be many competing demands for the record surplus. Of the $17.6 billion, $12 billion is left-over from the current two-year budget and nearly $6 billion will be created from higher-than-projected tax collections and lower spending over the next two budget cycles. That $6 billion by itself would be a record surplus prior to last November’s $7.25 billion surplus.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, students in the free and reduced program across the state were served more than 36 million breakfasts and nearly 92 million lunches during the 2018-19 school year, the last full pre-pandemic year. That compares to 45 million breakfasts and nearly 94 million lunches served in the 2021-2022 school year under the federally funded hybrid program in which some meals were available via curbside pickup.
School funding complication
But the issue becomes complicated because of how deeply free-and-reduced-price lunch measures are entrenched in school funding. About 10% of district money comes not from per-student funding formulas but by categorical funding that puts extra money into schools for low-income students, students who grew up speaking languages other than English and other special needs. If districts don’t have to tally up how many students get lunch subsidies, how would they prove how much money they should get from these so-called compensatory revenue programs?
“That is the big concern and one we have expressed to our colleagues at the Department of Education and legislators,” said Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, which is made up of school board members and superintendents from metro schools. “If you do move away from filling out the forms for free and reduced price eligibility, that is what we also use to generate compensatory revenue for school districts.”
Croonquist said fewer eligible families completed the application forms during the pandemic because they didn’t have to to gain access to school meals.
“School districts saw a significant drop in their compensatory revenue,” he said.
The association has taken no position on universal school lunch, he said, even though the current system of applications and verification is a bureaucratic headache.
“It is a huge time-consuming and difficult process to get the forms collected,” he said. “School officials are definitely not wedded to that. It’s just more a matter of what can replace it. We are in favor of looking at a broader metric,” suggesting Census tract data or other measures.
“But to date they have not come up with one,” Croonquist said. “Before you move on this, you need to examine this and make sure we’re not going to end up harming the same students we want to help.”
Mounds View parent Davis said she has heard those concerns from her district and other suburban districts. But she said there is a path to convince school officials to lift their concerns and to come up with different ways of distributing those funds.
“I don’t think it’s that they don’t support. I think they don’t understand how it can be done,” Davis said. Urban districts are more supportive than suburban districts, she said, and suburban districts are where she is focusing her work.
Gardner argues that there are ways – potentially better ways – to measure how many children in a school meet poverty levels. Already students whose families are on supplemental nutrition programs, who are in foster care or who live on Indian reservations are automatically deemed eligible for free school meals. Now, Minnesota is part of a federal pilot program that would deem students in families receiving health care through Medicaid enrolled in school food plans.
Another federal rule allows districts to provide school meals for all if a school or a district has a high percentage of students living in poverty. Some 300 schools in Minnesota and a handful of districts take part, but it is voluntary and some districts opt out because the federal money doesn’t cover costs.
House DFLers did not include universal lunch funding in their budget proposal last session, but they did add money to cover that gap between costs and federal reimbursement. There was bipartisan support for that measure. Jordan said she expects more support among DFLers this time.
“A lot of DFLers know more about the issue,” she said. “Things take time to incubate around here, but people understand it now.”
The need for such a plan goes away with state-funded universal lunches but the metric used – perhaps supplemented with Census data – could become a new metric for compensatory revenue for districts to replace free-and-reduced-price lunch percentages. Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, has been charged with brokering an agreement on that issue.
Said Jordan: “We have lots of problems in education, but this is one of those I call a paperwork problem. Not that it’s not a real problem, but we as adults can figure out the paperwork problems to feed children.”
A better metric than school lunch eligibility?
Districts might even see more funding with new measures because they capture students who don’t apply, something that gets more pronounced with older students. Following the same cohort of students through elementary, middle and high school shows fewer apply at each level.
Gardner said she learned from listening sessions with students that embarrassment is a factor.
“Sometimes we really underestimate what stigma looks like and feels like for our young people,” she said. “That heightens as they get older.” The pandemic-era universal meals program saw increased use of school meals than before when payment or subsidies were required.
But she agrees that to get school district buy-in for universal meals, the Legislature would need to quickly adopt a new poverty measure “in the same session.”
Walz had included funding to continue universal lunches with state money only, but it was not taken up by either chamber. A cheaper and less-sweeping proposal would have increased the number of universal lunch schools by using an alternative eligibility measurement to provide lunches for all in high-poverty schools. But it was lost, along with most budget bills, when a bipartisan budget agreement died last spring.
Walz is again pledging to add the roughly $185 million additional each school year to supplement federal money for low-income students with state money for the rest of the student body.
Jordan said she has heard some opponents who try to link her bill to the scandal surrounding pandemic-era feeding programs for children. One vendor, Feeding Our Future, has been accused of redirecting $250 million in money meant to feed kids, and 50 people have been charged with federal crimes.
But she argues that using a decades-old program that has government entities deliver meals directly to children is a solution, not a problem.
“If people are truly concerned about this fraud from nonprofits, they should embrace my bill because this cuts out the middleman,” she said. The money goes directly to districts and districts use it to feed the children in their presence.
“If we had universal meals we wouldn’t have had Feeding Our Future’s fraud,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that numbers from the Minnesota Department of Education for the 2018-19 school year were for free and reduced-price meals only.