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MN Looks to Erase Hunger in Schools

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Monday, February 6, 2023   

Better health and educational outcomes are being touted as the potential benefits as Minnesota lawmakers discuss whether to provide free school meals for all students.

Supporters of the idea said it is especially critical now, to ensure all kids can get free breakfast and lunch at school, regardless of income. A legislative plan calls for state funding to be combined with annual aid from the long-standing National School Lunch Program.

Leah Gardner, policy director for Hunger Solutions Minnesota, said the state is coming off a record year for visits to food shelves. She argued more can be done to help struggling families who are barely above the current eligibility threshold for free school meals.

"If you're a family with multiple kids in school, we're talking about a hundred dollars or more a month out of your budget," Gardner pointed out.

She noted amid higher consumer costs, it has become increasingly difficult to afford, and the need is being felt in all regions of Minnesota.

Health experts have said consistent, balanced meals help students focus and stay healthy. The bill is being proposed by Democrats. During committee debate, Republicans said expanding the eligibility threshold would be more effective, but an amendment failed.

Dr. Aarti Bhatt, a pediatrician at Community-University Health Care Center in Minneapolis, said food insecurity is considered by researchers as one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, for its lasting impacts.

"We know that what happens to kids when they're young, up through adulthood, has a huge impact on development of various chronic diseases," Bhatt explained.

She added other factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety.

Bukata Hayes, vice president of racial equity for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, said free school meals tie into the social determinants of health, noting 80% of a person's health is shaped by factors outside a doctor's office.

Hayes asserted making sure all kids can get food at school is one way to help close achievement gaps in learning, knowing there are other racial disparities to contend with.

"Housing, wealth and other areas," Hayes outlined. "Removing one of those, particularly for children of color in schools, is important."

The bill has moved through various committees. Roughly $400 million would be needed the next two budget years to cover the costs. It comes as the state considers how to use its historic surplus.

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

References:  
House File 5 2023

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House Bill passed with an overwhelming vote of 94-6, with three abstentions. Its companion, Senate Bill 159, passed unanimously with a vote of 34-0. (Chad Robertson/Adobe Stock)

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