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By Julie Siple, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published February 07 2013

MInnesota bill would expand free lunch program, would help 2,000 Moorhead students

ST. PAUL – A bill in the state Legislature that aims to help Minnesota students whose families cannot afford to buy them lunch would expand the free lunch program by 61,500 students.

Supporters of the bill say it would ensure that low-income students have the nutrition they need to learn in school and are not refused a lunch when they cannot pay. But at a cost to the state of $4 million a year, the measure has sparked criticism that it relieves parents of responsibility.

Under a federal program, Minnesota provides free lunches to nearly 250,000 students a year.

The 61,500 students some legislators want to add currently qualify for lunch at a reduced price. For 40 cents a day, they receive a balanced meal, such as a turkey burger, sweet potatoes, fruit and vegetables.

But advocates for low-income families say even that can be too expensive.

“There is a risk that these kids don’t have the money for lunch,” said Jessica Webster, a staff attorney with the Legal Services Advocacy Project.

In Moorhead, there are 350 students who receive reduced-price meals. About 2,000 receive free lunch.

Legal Aid surveyed about half of the school districts in the state to find out what schools do when students run out of money in their lunch accounts.

“We found that about 20 percent of districts do have a policy of turning a child away with nothing,” Webster said. “It looks different in a lot of districts. Some days you’ll get a peanut butter sandwich for three days, and then they’ll send you away. Some days you’ll get crackers, and then you get turned away after a week.”

Two bills to expand the free-lunch program have been filed in the state Senate. Similar measures have been introduced in the House.

“With all of the talk about education and education reform, and making sure that our children are prepared to go into society, there’s no better way than to make that sure kids get a good, quality lunch so they can learn,” said state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief author of one of the bills.

The bill is likely to face some questions when it comes up in a Senate hearing. Among those who are skeptical of the proposal is state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge.

“The concern with that is number one, you’re completely disengaging families that theoretically at least have a fairly substantial ability to pay something,” said Nienow, the ranking minority member on the Senate Education Finance Committee.

Under federal guidelines, children from a family of four can qualify for reduced-price lunch if their family’s household income does not exceed $42,643 a year. For a family of seven, the limit is $64,621.

Among the districts that have policy to turn students without money away is the St. James School District in southern Minnesota. Superintendent Becky Cselovszki said the district ordinarily allows students to run a deficit at lunch for seven to 10 days. St. James schools refused meals to two children last school year, and wrote off about $2,000 in unpaid lunch debt.

Still, Cselovszki is torn about the proposal.

“I’m all for feeding all the kids, and I think it’s a great initiative, but I do also think that there needs to be some accountability on our parents,” Cselovszki said. “I think the school over time has just continued to take on more and more parental responsibilities. There has to be a line somewhere.”