Before going to Congress, that is, before becoming the 41st Governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz was a high school social studies teacher and football coach in Mankato, Minnesota, a small town in southern USA. State, known as the soybean grinding capital of the world. . One of his tasks was to determine which students paid for their lunches and which qualified for free meals.
“Even when I started teaching, the kids knew who had the other colored lunch ticket. And all of a sudden, you created this situation of who didn’t have it, and we created tensions of ‘inequalities back home where the kids who need that lunch are,’ he told a group of reporters on Thursday.
“I used to take the numbers and type them in as a teacher – we were all assigned to do that – and then make lists of who didn’t pay and who were the numbers or whatever,” he continued. “It’s not there anymore.”
Starting July 1, Minnesota will provide school children with free lunches whether or not they qualify for federal income guidelines. This is part of a growing trend, spurred by child hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary federal relief intended to alleviate it, from six states over the past two years, dramatically expanding access to food for students during the school day to make it universal or thereabouts.
“Even when I started teaching, the kids knew who had the other colored lunch ticket.”
– Governor Tim Walz (D-Minn.)
The movement is diverse geographically but not politically, with expansions all occurring in states with Democratic legislatures, although in some cases the governor is a Republican or a libertarian-leaning Democrat. Outside of Minnesotaother states that have significantly expanded free school meals include Vermont, Colorado, Maine, California and New Mexico.
And the trend may be just beginning. About 20 states had or still have pending legislation on the issue this year. Even in states that haven’t taken the leap toward universal student lunch availability, some, like ruby-red North Dakota, have expanded it significantly.
Hunger relief advocates are also optimistic about further progress.
“This is good news,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of curricular and after-school programs for the Food Research & Action Center.
“I am optimistic, finally. I mean, I’m not a Pollyanna, but I see glimmers of hope here,” said Annette Nielsen, executive director of Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center.
“I am optimistic, finally. I mean, I’m no Pollyanna, but I see glimmers of hope here.
– Annette Nielsen, executive director of Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center
The sense of momentum among school lunch advocates is palpable and a marked change from several years ago when their goal was to reduce school lunch shame, which happened when school districts ran short of money distinguished the children of indebted families for the school lunch.
Why has the idea of giving every schoolchild a free lunch, regardless of income, now taken off? The answer, oddly enough, is the COVID pandemic.
“I think you can’t understand the dramatic national momentum around universal school meals without the pandemic,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.
During the pandemic, the federal government eased restrictions on the eligibility and availability of school meals and related summer meal programs to help soften the blow of the closures. When schools resumed in-person classes, waivers relieving them of things like taking applications and verifying families’ financial information remained in place and schools realized how simpler and easier it was to administer the meal programs.
But that ended last summer, when pandemic waivers granted by the Department of Agriculture were finally allowed to expire. A bipartisan agreement in Congress allowed some changes to summer lunch programs, but schools have faced a return to a pre-pandemic system with higher administrative barriers and less efficiency.
This prospect has spurred some states into action. California passed a law implementing universal school breakfasts and lunches from the start of the 2022-2023 school year. Maine approved a similar law right after California. And in November 2022, Colorado voters approved the FF proposalwho created a universal meal plan.
Vermont had an interim one-year program with a permanent version signed into law on June 14, after Republican Gov. Phil Scott refused to sign it but also did not vetoallowing it to become law.
“What I will say is that the pandemic was really a trial for healthy school meals for all and it showed that it worked. This showed that it was an easier way to exploit programs. And it is doable. And it’s the right thing to do,” said FRAC’s FitzSimons.
“I think you can’t understand the dramatic national momentum around universal school meals without the pandemic.”
– Anore Horton, Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont
Programs generally build on the Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Program and supplement it with government funds.
The CEP allows school districts where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals because their families receive federal food assistance, cash benefits, or Medicaid to offer free meals for all without a process of asked. This saves schools the headache of paperwork, tracking which meals are free or discounted, and collecting lunch fees.
The sources of public funds may differ. In Colorado, as part of the referendum, the program is funded by ending income tax deductions for households earning $300,000 a year or more. In Vermont, the permanent program will be paid on the state education fund, that is separate from its general fund and has various sources of revenue, including property taxes. Governor Scott warned the program could drive up property taxes in the state.
But advocates say the tab isn’t as big as it first appears. Hungerless Vermont hortons said that although the estimate for the one-year palliative program was $29 million, it was expected to cost about a million and a half dollars less and possibly become more affordable with the time.
Scott’s worry about skyrocketing costs and taxes is not uncommon among his fellow Republicans. The Republican Study Committee, a group of conservatives that is the largest ideological group in the House GOP conference, has proposed to get rid of the CEP entirely by its recent budget plan And tightening income levels for who would qualify for the lunch programFor “limit program spending to truly needy households.”
Walz, the governor of Minnesota, said the only criticism he’s heard is that the program would help families who can afford to buy their kids’ lunch, an objection Republicans never make to cutbacks. taxes.
“I was like, ‘This is the first time in your life you’ve said that,'” he said. “So you’re saying the rich are going to benefit?” And that’s why we shouldn’t do it?
“We don’t ask that question about any other aspect of school funding,” Horton said. “Why don’t we charge the wealthiest families for their child to take the school bus? Like, we just don’t say that about anything else except meals, breakfast, and lunch at school.
“Why don’t we charge the wealthiest families for their child to take the school bus? Like, we just don’t say that about anything else except meals, breakfast, and lunch at school.
– Anore Horton, Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont
The idea seems popular. The FRAC said polls showed 63% of voters would support universal availability of school meals.
Even in North Dakota, where the push for universal meals failed, state lawmakers approved raising the income limit for eligibility from 130% of the federal poverty level to 200%. (The effort may have been helped by backlash from lawmakers increasing their own meal reimbursement levels during the session after initially canceling a school lunch expansion.)
“I can tell you there are few things I’ve done that have been more universally popular,” Walz said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee that oversees the program, told HuffPost that there was little chance the federal government would act on the issue, given the difficulty whom she met last year negotiating to maintain summer meal programs as school meal eligibility waivers expired.
“I think the way we’re going to do that right now is through the states,” she said.