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House bill guarantees hot lunch for students; Senate yet to vote

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The Minnesota House unanimously approved a bill guaranteeing a hot school lunch, even for students who can't afford it.

The $3.5 million dollar plan – in Governor Mark Dayton's budget surplus wish list, by the way – ensures that all K-12 students in Minnesota schools can afford a school lunch policy that provides a hot meal to students on the reduced-price lunch program.

This issue took the spotlight last month, when a survey by the nonprofit Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid found 15 percent of school districts deny lunch to students if they have a negative balance on their account.

“This bill is the culmination of the work begun last session, and is supported by numerous faith-based and other organizations,” Rep. Yvonne Selcer (DFL–Minnetonka), the bill's author, said in a statement after its 130-0 passage Thursday. “This unanimous vote makes the bipartisan statement that no child shall go hungry in a Minnesota school because of an inability to pay.”

The Senate still has to pass it, then Dayton can sign it – something the governor has already said he'll do, KSTP reports. A similar bill is working its way through that chamber now, the AP says.

The AP explains, much of the cost of a reduced-price school lunch is covered by the federal government. The state also kicks in a small amount. When children are on the reduced-lunch program, families pay the 40-cent gap left over after the federal government and state pay their share.

The passed bill says any school that receives national and state money must make a lunch available, without charge, to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

"No child in the state of Minnesota should be turned away because of an inability to pay," Selcer said, according to KSTP. She estimated 61,500 students would benefit. You can see the start of the chamber's discussion and vote by clicking here.

The results of the Legal Aid survey (which you can see in full here) sparked the action. The organization said 309 of the state's 330 school districts answered the survey. Forty-six schools said staff is allowed to deny students lunch if their account balances are negative.

About one-third of the districts in the state say they never deny students hot lunch if they can’t pay, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin. About half of the districts surveyed offer cold, less-nutritious alternatives, such as a cheese or peanut butter sandwich, if students can’t pay for a 40-cent reduced-price lunch.

The results rallied a number of high-profile officials to the cause, including Dayton and Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. Both spoke publicly about prioritizing a solution during this legislative session.

“We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach," Dayton said at the time. "I look forward to working with the legislature to make this issue a priority in the upcoming legislative session, and fully fund the bill authored by Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Yvonne Selcer.”

And Cassellius, in an e-mail to superintendents, wrote the results were "quite troubling."

"Like me, I know that none of you would deny a child a nutritious lunch intentionally," she continued. "I am hoping you will speak with your Food Service Directors regarding this information and find ways to ensure children are never turned away from receiving a hot meal."

Increasing the school lunch budget – from about $13.1 million to about $16.5 million, in the House bill – became even more viable when the state tallied a budget surplus of $1.2 billion late last month.

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