The universal free school lunch program that the U.S. Department of Agriculture instituted at the start of the pandemic should become permanent, food bank operators and school nutritionists told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday.

"I don't want to go back to a broken system" when the pandemic is over, Leah Gardner, the policy director for Hunger Solutions Minnesota, told Vilsack at a discussion of food security at Second Harvest Heartland in Brooklyn Park. "The only real solution is to continue free school meals for all. It's got a big price tag, but the cost of childhood hunger is bigger."

For now, the USDA has committed to providing free school lunch to all students through the upcoming school year. Vilsack stopped short of throwing his support behind a permanent extension. He said the Biden administration and its allies in Congress are looking at ways to extend and make permanent a number of the programs rolled out during the pandemic to help people in need.

"If you look around the world today, most of the places where there's the most serious unrest is in places where there's lots of unemployed people, and lots of hungry people," Vilsack said. He said the administration is committed to "figuring out" how to make free school lunches permanent but agreed that "it is a big-ticket item."

Advocates in the fight against hunger and school officials told Vilsack and U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, the Democrat who represents Brooklyn Park and nearby communities, that the pandemic forced them to adapt practices and make changes quickly in order to keep people fed.

"We closed our schools last March 15, and on March 16 we had to figure out how to serve lunch in ways we never had," said Barb Mechura, director of nutrition for Hopkins Public Schools.

And routines kept changing as response to the pandemic evolved, she said. School employees went from packing seven days of meals for a weekly pickup, to smaller meal bags with three to four days of meals, to variations on those models when some students started coming back to classrooms.

"It was extremely hard on our staff physically," Mechura said. "We were packing 4,000 grocery bags every week."

Some healthy eating practices did have to be curtailed during the pandemic, Mechura said, including an emphasis on from-scratch cooking in school kitchens, and a fresh fruit and vegetable bar that proved popular with students.

Money flowing from the federal government since the pandemic has accelerated even more since Biden took office. In addition to the extension of universal free lunch, Vilsack said that spending plans now under consideration in Congress would extend other provisions that have made food more available, including the program that over the last two summers has offered free or reduced lunches to students who normally could only access those services during the school year.

Data released by the Census Bureau this week showed that the first installments of the new child tax credits in the American Rescue Plan legislation had an immediate impact in alleviating child hunger. The rate of U.S. households that report sometimes not having enough to eat dropped from 11 to 8% in mid-July, after the first payments linked to the credits went out.

In Minnesota, food cost was cited by far the most in the census tally of how the tax credit money was spent.

At the end of last year, Shiloh Temple International Ministries opened a food shelf on the north side of Minneapolis. It's within an area that's been designated as one of the largest "food deserts" in the U.S., said Jalilia Abdul-Brown, who runs the program.

"The day we opened our doors there were lines around the corner," Abdul-Brown said. Multiple local grocery chains donated large amounts of food, she said, and money from federal, state and local governments was also necessary to make it possible.

Many of the younger people served had little familiarity with healthy, fresh food, Abdul-Brown said. "We had to teach them — that's a raspberry."