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Amid Rising Hunger, MN Sees Renewed Calls for Universal Lunches


Monday, December 12, 2022   

On the heels of last week's news that Minnesota's budget surplus has grown larger, there are renewed calls to approve free school meals for all students, regardless of income.

Districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program receive federal funds to offer free and reduced-price meals to eligible students. A universal program asks the state to provide the remaining funds to cover all students.

Colleen Moriarty - executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota - said with visits to food shelves still trending higher, they want to ensure that children from those households have as much access to nutritious food as possible.

She argued that it will help these students learn better collectively.

"Nutritious food solves a lot of issues," said Moriarty. "It doesn't solve all of them, but it breeds a more calm atmosphere, I think."

Temporary federal support for universal lunches, spurred by the pandemic, expired in June.

In Minnesota, a permanent plan was floated last legislative session, but lawmakers failed to agree on most supplemental spending.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz suggests he will prioritize universal lunches next session. There's still Republican opposition, but Walz's party will control the Legislature.

Those who oppose the idea question whether free meals should be offered to students who don't need them. But supporters have long argued that part of the push involves removing the stigma associated with these programs.

Moriarty added that hunger is increasingly affecting families who don't meet the eligibility threshold, and that the problem isn't isolated to certain areas.

"There are kids in rural areas who go hungry," said Moriarty. "There are kids in suburban areas that go hungry. It's not just one part of the state. It's a chance to really make a difference."

Currently, three states around the U.S. have approved permanent universal meals.

Meanwhile, Moriarty said they anticipate that visits to Minnesota food shelves will approach the five million mark during a year in which inflation has added pressure to household budgets.

She said they'll likely ask for additional food-shelf funding as well.

Disclosure: Hunger Solutions Minnesota contributes to our fund for reporting on Hunger/Food/Nutrition, Livable Wages/Working Families. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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