If low-income children can't afford a nutritious, hot lunch, the state of Minnesota should pick up the tab, the House Education Finance Committee decided Thursday.

After reports that more than half the public school districts in Minnesota deny hot lunches to students who can't pay for them, the Legislature is rushing to find the $3.5 million it would take to expand the state's free lunch program to the thousands of low-income children enrolled in the reduced-price lunch program.

"This is a great opportunity to, in a bipartisan manner, make the statement that no child shall go hungry in Minnesota because of an inability to pay," said  Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, who sponsored legislation that would let the state cover the cost of expanding free lunches to the thousands of students in the reduced-price lunch program.

A searing report by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid last month found that a majority of school districts substitute cold sandwiches, or no lunch at all, when students run out of money in their lunch accounts. Some sent children home with hand stamps or stickers to alert parents that they had come up short. The districts noted  that they often continued to provide the lunches long after the money ran out, which led to large deficits in their own budgets.

Right now, families in the low-income lunch program, pay 40 cents per child per meal, which might not sound like much, but can add up for families and districts alike.

Selcer offered a hypothetical: A single parent with two children, earning $32,000 a year, wouldn't qualify for any other supplemental food assistance, like SNAP, and would be left with a monthly food budget of about $51 a month. Any expense, like a car repair, could erase the family's entire school lunch budget, she said.

"A child who has decided not to have lunch, because he or she knows that mom and dad hasn't paid this month's lunch bill, is more likely to go home and overeat on the starchier foods that the family can afford," Selcer said. "That child is less likely to do well academically at school, as we know that good nutrition plays a huge role in learning."

The legislation would shift the cost of lunch to the state and mandate districts to provide nutritious hot lunches to low-income children, regardless of their parents ability, or willingness to pay.

The committee signed off Selcer's bill by voice vote Thursday morning. It now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee. Gov. Mark Dayton also included the lunch money in his budget request.

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