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Minnesota Legislature

Schools need lunch money

Published (3/6/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Two bills would keep school lunches accessible to students whose families are dealing with kitchen table concerns.

More families are applying for free- or reduced-cost lunch eligibility, Sherri Knutson, Minnesota School Nutrition Association public policy chairwoman, told the House K-12 Education Finance Division Feb. 26. She said some school food service directors report that even some students who pay full price are skimping now.

“Mom and dad are giving them money to eat maybe only twice a week because there just isn’t enough household money to spare,” Knutson said.

Rochester Public Schools, where Knutson coordinates school nutrition services, has approved 346 applications for reduced-cost lunch since November, compared with 122 in the same period last year.

Susan Richardson, Roseville Area Schools’ nutrition services coordinator, said 1,800 of 6,500 families in the district qualify for free lunches. Though another 500 qualify for reduced-cost meals, about a quarter can’t pay the 40 cents they’re charged.

HF784, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Newton (DFL-Coon Rapids), would increase the state reimbursement for reduced priced meals from 12 cents to 52 cents per meal, and require that schools offer reduced priced meals at no cost to eligible students. Its estimated price tag is $3.5 million annually.

Sponsored by Rep. John Benson (DFL-Minnetonka), HF252 would increase state aid to school food programs from 12 cents to 15 cents per meal. It’s estimated to cost $3 million per year.

School food programs are raising money and saving costs, testifiers said. For example, sales of a la carte snacks, such as chips and cookies, often help underwrite higher prices for fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains — even as the high-fat snacks undermine today’s stricter nutrition standards. Rochester and dozens of other districts economize through membership in buying groups. Some schools subsidize meals for those who can’t pay from unclaimed funds from former students’ lunch accounts. Still, as the number of paid meals decreases, said Knutson, costs per meal increase.

Both bills were held over for possible inclusion in an omnibus education finance bill. Their respective companions, SF856, sponsored by Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer), and SF1015, sponsored by Sen. Mee Moua (DFL-St. Paul), await action by the Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division.

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