Before he entered Congress, before he became Minnesota’s 41st governor, Tim Walz was a high school social studies teacher and soccer coach in Mankato, Minnesota, a small southern town known as the soybean-crushing capital of the world is . One of his jobs was to find out which students paid for their lunches and which qualified for free meals.
“Even when I started teaching, the kids knew who had the different colored lunch menu. And all of a sudden you created this situation where it’s about who didn’t have it, and we created tensions of inequality right here with us where there are kids who need that lunch,” he told a group of reporters Thursday.
“As a teacher, I used to take the numbers and type them in – we were all given that task – and then make lists of who didn’t pay and who the numbers were or whatever,” he continued. “That does not exist anymore.”
Beginning July 1, Minnesota will offer free lunches to schoolchildren whether or not they fall under federal income guidelines. This is part of a growing trend fueled by child starvation during the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary federal aid to alleviate the problem. Six states have dramatically expanded student access to food during the school day to making it universal, or nearly so, in the last two years.
“Even when I started teaching, the kids knew who had the different colored lunch menu.”
– Gov. Tim Walz (D-Minn.)
The movement is geographically diverse but not political. The expansions are all taking place in states with Democratic legislatures, but in some cases where the governor is a Republican or a libertarian-leaning Democrat. Besides Minnesota, Vermont, Colorado, Maine, California and New Mexico are the other states that have drastically expanded free school meals.
And the trend may just be starting. About 20 states had or have pending legislation on the subject this year. Even in states that haven’t taken the step toward general student lunch availability, some, like Ruby Red North Dakota, have expanded availability significantly.
Anti-hunger advocates are also optimistic about further progress.
“This is good news,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of in-school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center.
“Ultimately, I’m optimistic. I mean, I’m not Pollyanna, but I see glimmers of hope here,” said Annette Nielsen, executive director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center.
“Ultimately, I’m optimistic. I mean, I’m not Pollyanna, but I see glimmers of hope here.”
– Annette Nielsen, executive director of Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center
The dynamic among school lunch advocates is palpable and represents a marked change from a few years ago when their focus was on reducing school lunch shaming, which happened when financially strapped school districts singled out children from families with tuition debt.
Why did the idea of giving every school child a free lunch, regardless of income, come up just now? The answer, oddly enough, is the COVID pandemic.
“I think without the pandemic, you can’t understand the dramatic national dynamics surrounding universal school meals,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.
During the pandemic, the federal government has eased restrictions on the eligibility and availability of school meals and associated summer meal programs to mitigate the impact of the lockdowns. As schools returned to face-to-face classes, the exemptions that freed them from things like accepting applications and verifying families’ financial information remained in place, and schools realized how much simpler and easier it was to administer meal programs.
But that ended last summer, when the pandemic exemptions extended by the Department of Agriculture were finally allowed to expire. A bipartisan agreement in Congress allowed for some changes to summer meal programs, but schools faced a return to a pre-pandemic system with higher paperwork hurdles and lower effectiveness.
This prospect prompted some states to act. California passed a law providing for universal school breakfasts and lunches from the school year 2022-2023. Maine passed a similar law straight to California. And in November 2022, Colorado voters approved Proposition FFwho created a universal food program.
Vermont had a year-long stopgap program with a permanent version taking effect June 14 after Republican Gov. Phil Scott declined to sign it, but didn’t veto it eitherthrough which it could become law.
“What I want to say is that the pandemic has really been a dry run for healthy school meals for everyone and has shown that it works. It turned out to be an easier way to operate programs. And it’s doable. And it’s the right thing to do,” said FRAC’s FitzSimons.
“I think you can’t understand the dramatic national dynamics surrounding universal school feeding without the pandemic.”
– Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont
The programs are typically based on the Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Program and supplemented with government funding.
The CEP allows school districts in which at least 40% of students are eligible for free or discounted meals because their families receive federal food assistance, cash benefits, or Medicaid to offer free meals for all without an application process. This saves schools the paperwork, tracking meals to see if they are free or discounted, and collecting lunch fees.
The sources of state funds can be different. In Colorado, the referendum will fund the program by eliminating income tax deductions for households earning $300,000 or more a year. The permanent program will be in Vermont paid out the country’s education fund, which is separate from its general fund and has various sources of income, including property taxes. Governor Scott warned the program could drive up property taxes in the state.
However, proponents say the tab isn’t as big as it might first appear. Hunger Free Vermont Horton said that while the estimate for the year-long stopgap program is $29 million, it would actually be about $1.5 million cheaper and might become more affordable over time.
Scott’s concern about rising costs and taxes is not uncommon among his Republican compatriots. The Republican Study Committee, a group of conservatives that is the largest ideological group in the House GOP conference, proposed abolishing the CEP altogether its current budget And Income level tightening for those who would be entitled to it for the lunch programTo “Limit spending under the program to households that are truly in need.”
Walz, the Minnesota governor, said the only criticism he’s heard is that the program would help families who can afford to buy lunch for their children, an objection he says Republicans never did oppose tax cuts.
“I thought, ‘This is the first time in your life you’ve said that,'” he said. “So you’re saying wealthy people will benefit? And that’s why we shouldn’t do it?”
“We don’t ask this question about other aspects of school funding,” Horton said. “Why don’t we ask wealthier families to let their children ride the school bus?” For example, we don’t say that about anything other than school meals, breakfast and lunch.”
“Why don’t we ask wealthier families to let their children ride the school bus?” For example, we don’t say that about anything other than school meals, breakfast and lunch.”
– Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont
The idea seems to be popular. FRAC said polls showed 63% of voters would support the universal availability of school meals.
Even in North Dakota, where universal meal efforts have failed, state legislators approved raising the income threshold for eligibility from 130% of the state poverty line to 200%. (The effort might have helped by backlash from lawmakers who increased their own meal allowances during the session after a school lunch extension was initially denied.)
“I can tell you there are few things I’ve done that have been more universally loved,” Walz said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the program, told HuffPost that given the difficulties she saw in negotiations to keep the summer meal programs last year, there was little chance for state action on the matter. The school lunch exemption has expired.
“I think the way we’re going to do this now is through the states,” she said.