Universal school lunches could have unintended consequences, school leaders say

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(ABC 6 News) – A pandemic-era policy could be returning to Minnesota schools, as a new proposal has passed the house committee and would provide all students access to a free school lunch.

Many democratic lawmakers have been pushing for the bill for a while, saying that the impact inflation is having on families makes it the right time to make free school lunches a reality.

However, local school leaders say that these free lunches could come with some unintended consequences.

It all comes down to an eligibility form parents fill out when applying for school lunch assistance.

The form requires sharing their income level with the district, and the district then shares that data with the state.

“The district would get a different amount of funding based on if a kid is free, reduced or full pay,” explained Director of Food Services with Austin Public Schools Mary Weikum.

Without schools getting that information, districts lose crucial state funding.

“When everyone gets free meals, the unintended, bad consequence is families don’t fill out forms because they already are getting the free meals,” Weikum added.

Weikum says that during the pandemic when lunches were free, the district lose out on $100,000+ in funding because families were not filling out assistance applications.

But, she says, universal lunches can only help students and struggling families.

“Families just can’t afford to feed the whole family anymore with the dramatic increase in grocery prices,” said Virginia Merritt, the executive director with Channel One Food Bank.

This year at APS, 68% of families qualified for free and reduced lunches.

This summer, when school lunches were not an option for children, Channel One saw a 45% increase in shoppers in July.

“Kids shouldn’t have to worry about lunch and it just shouldn’t be this hard in Minnesota for families, including all of these working families, to have enough to eat,” Merritt added.

Merritt is a mom herself, and as head of the state’s second largest food bank, she understands the struggle and says lawmakers are heading in the right direction.

“The best way for every child to get enough food to eat is through universal school lunch,” she said.

Free universal lunches would cost the state roughly $180,000,000 a year.

The bill wants to use money from the state’s budget surplus to cover the cost.

This is one part of Governor Tim Walz’s two year budget proposal, which will be released in full next week.