22 August 2022
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A new pilot program Minnesota is a part of is helping tens of thousands more students get free meals when they head back to school this year.
Federal funding made it possible for all students to receive free meals during the COVID pandemic, but that ended in June.
A school lunch on average costs $3.25. For a family of four that’s $150 a month.
Experts said with many still struggling from the pandemic and the rise in inflation making everything more expensive, this new pilot program couldn’t have come at a better time.
Students and families can already qualify for free and reduced meals through SNAP, MFIP or other federal programs, but the new program through the USDA uses Medicaid data to identify even more students and families who qualify and directly certifies them to get free meals at school.
Through the program, 90,000 more students will get free meals this year who might otherwise go hungry.
Erin Bailey, the executive director of Minnesota’s Children’s Cabinet, said this is a step in the right direction.
“Access to healthy food is tied to better education outcomes, it’s tied to better health,” said Bailey. “It’s tied to so many things that we want to be true for each and every kid and student in Minnesota, and so this is the bare minimum, in my opinion, of how we work aggressively to center kids and families and wrap around their needs.”
The pilot program also indirectly helps schools enrolled in the Community Eligibility Program. When schools reach a certain number of students who qualify for the free and reduced meals, they can then draw on other resources to help provide free meals for all students.
Hunger Solutions Minnesota leaders started the Healthy, Hunger-Free Schools initiative two years ago after they saw the benefits of providing free school meals to all students during the pandemic.
“I think that the way to really end lunch shaming, which we’re already seeing cropping up in some of the plans because people haven’t paid for meals for two years,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director at Hunger Solutions Minnesota.” There is a certain amount of apprehension about what’s going to happen when people have to pay for the meals.”
Moriarty said roughly 500,000 students in the state qualify for free or reduced meals, but that number is likely to grow with a potential recession looming.
California, Massachusetts and Vermont have all passed universal meals in their states.
Hunger Solutions Minnesota leaders were successful in helping to get $187 million set aside in the last state budget for universal lunches, but it ultimately failed to pass.
The organization is also working to again get funding set aside in the next state budget for free universal meals.
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Author: Pauleen Le