Even as Minnesota legislators vote to provide more state aid, the senator vows to ask federal taxpayers to pick up the tab for reduced-priced school meals.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken is resurrecting his proposal to pay for hot school lunches for students who get reduced-price meals.
“We should really be committed to making sure kids don’t go hungry at school,” Franken said in an interview with the Star Tribune.
The senator had lunch Monday with students at Meadow Lake Elementary School in New Hope, saying the best research shows that students learn better when they are well nourished.
Franken said the proposal is designed to help students whose parents can’t afford the reduced-price lunches, which cost about 40 cents apiece. In cases where a student’s account falls to zero, the student is only offered a cheese sandwich or some other alternative.
Sometimes, Franken said, students turn down the cheese sandwich to spare themselves embarrassment.
“The idea of them going hungry is wrong,” Franken said.
One of Franken’s GOP challengers, Mike McFadden, said the issue highlights the differences between the two candidates.
Franken, he said, looks for a federal solution to something that state leaders are already about to tackle.
“We should really look to the state or local government,” McFadden said.
Right now, children from a family of four that makes between $32,198 and $44,123 qualify for reduced-priced lunches. Under Franken’s proposal, taxpayers would pick up the full tab for those lunches.
The proposal essentially does away with the reduced-price lunch category.
A member of the Senate Education Committee, Franken introduced the proposal in 2009 and again in 2010, but the measures never became law.
It is not clear how much the proposal would cost or how many students around the country would be affected.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators are rushing passage of a proposal to have the state pay for students whose parents can’t pay for reduced-price lunches.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid conducted a survey of Minnesota school districts last year and found that 15 percent would refuse any lunch to students who could not pay. Another 53 percent of schools offered an alternative, such as a cheese sandwich, to those students. In some cases, cafeteria workers threw away the school lunches of students whose accounts were empty.
Dayton and many legislators from both parties said that is unacceptable. The Minnesota House voted unanimously last week to set aside $3.5 million a year to pay for those lunches. The Senate is expected to follow suit. State Sen. Julianne Ortman, Franken’s other GOP challenger, said there is nothing controversial about the proposal, which has strong support from faith-based groups and other organizations.
“As a mom, I don’t ever want children to have to worry about whether they will get lunch,” said Ortman, R-Chanhassen. “This primarily is a state issue and the state is dealing with it.”
Franken said if Congress eventually passes the law, the federal government would take over the state’s share of the school lunches.
The senator plans to introduce the measure in Congress in coming weeks. His staff said the goal is to be fully supportive of what states like Minnesota are doing to ensure all kids get healthy meals.
“Kids don’t do as well when they are hungry,” he said.
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044