ST. PAUL, Minn. – When classes resume after Labor Day, Amber Lightfeather won't have to worry about where her children's next meals will be coming from. They'll be free.
Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, Vermont, Michigan, and Massachusetts will make school breakfasts and lunches permanently free to all students starting this academic year, regardless of family income, following in the footsteps of California and Maine. Several other states are considering similar changes and congressional supporters want to extend free meals to all kids nationwide.
Lightfeather, who has four kids who attend public schools in Duluth, Minnesota, said her family has sometimes qualified for free or reduced-price meals but would have had to pay in the upcoming school year if Minnesota had not made the change. Her earnings as a hospital worker and her husband's as a tribal employee would have put them over the limit. Last year, the family was paying over $260 a month for school meals for all four kids, who are at the hungry ages of 10, 13, 16 and 17.
She felt so strongly that she testified for Minnesota's school lunch bill when it came before the Legislature last winter. Students hugged Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, when he signed it into law at their Minneapolis elementary school in March.
“I was crying when I found out that they finally passed it. I didn't just go and testify for my own kids. I testified for every kid who could benefit,” Lightfeather said.
Schools nationwide offered free meals to all at the height of the pandemic, which sent participation soaring. But when federal aid ran out in spring 2022, most states reverted to free or discounted meals only for kids who qualified. That left out families that weren't poor enough, stigmatized those who were, and added to growing school meal debt.
“We know that students learn better when they are well nourished,” said Emily Honer, director of nutrition programs for the Minnesota Department of Education. “And we know that students a lot of time don’t know where their meal is going to come from. We’re taking that (fear) away."
In New Mexico, where educators and policymakers have long talked about the nexus of poverty and educational outcomes, most students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals even before the new law was signed in March.
Nevertheless, Albuquerque Public Schools saw an immediate increase in participation. And in the first seven days of the school year that started this month, the numbers increased by 1,000 per day for breakfast and lunch.
At Lowell Elementary in Albuquerque, the cafeteria was buzzing Tuesday as dozens of students lined the lunch tables with bright blue trays filled with veggies, rice and teriyaki beef.
Lorraine Martinez, the school secretary, said some children used to suffer stomach cramps or would feel dizzy because they didn’t have enough to eat.
“Now everybody has the food and water and milk — the nutrition — that they need,” she said.
Many families will still struggle to afford school meals in other states. Annette Nielsen, executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center in New York City, said breakfasts and lunches can cost parents $1,500 per student per year.
“Don’t we want kids to be able to perform well in school and get good, nutritious, healthful meals throughout their learning?" Nielsen asked. "I think it’s the least we can do.”
The Minnesota Legislature allocated over $440 million for first two years of the program despite Republican complaints about subsidizing families that can afford to pay. Honer, of the Minnesota Department of Education, said she was heartened by how many private and charter schools plan to participate.
Stacy Koppen, director of nutrition services for St. Paul Public Schools, said her district can offer universal meals at 60 schools this year, up from the 40 that qualified last year for a federal program that makes meals free to all students at schools with high populations from lower-income families.
“You can just come to school and focus on learning,” she said.
The new law is also a boon for Minnetonka in suburban Minneapolis, which is considered affluent. Superintendent David Law said about 8% to 10% of the district’s students qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches before the pandemic, and that plenty of families didn’t qualify but weren’t in a position to spend $20 a week per kid either.
Law said its also a benefit that serving breakfast is now mandatory. His schools had previously struggled to fill food-service openings for part-time, lunch-only positions, but his cafeterias are now almost fully staffed because the additional hours makes those jobs more attractive. More staff and the additional state money should help improve the quality and variety of the meals, he said.
“I think it's going to be a win all around,” Law said.
In New Mexico, education officials said the new law means more than 3,000 additional students now have access to no-cost meals, and because New Mexico also is requiring schools to upgrade their kitchens, more food can be made from scratch.
Alexis Bylander, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C., said momentum is building. She noted that some states have at least taken incremental action to make meals more affordable. Connecticut is using federal stimulus money to extend free meals to more students this year. Pennsylvania is planning on free breakfasts. Illinois passed a free school meals for all policy this year, but didn't include funding to implement it. New York City and some other local communities offer universal free meals on their own.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar reintroduced a bill in May to extend universal free meals to every state. While it's unlikely to advance in this divided Congress, Bylander said it lays out a vision of what is possible.
“While the eight state policies are great, and we think that there’s going to be more passed in the near future, we’re really calling on Congress and highlighting the need for a nationwide policy so all kids get that benefit,” Bylander said.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.