School meals will become free for every Minnesota public and charter school student. Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill Friday that makes the change, while surrounded by children who got a firsthand lesson in how legislation becomes law.
The official signing at Webster Elementary in northeast Minneapolis — where pepperoni pizza and turkey salami sandwiches were on the lunch menu — marked a step toward the governor's proposal to "make Minnesota the best state in the country to raise a child."
"We will feed our children," Walz said.
Until now, Minnesota law required parents to apply for free meals through a federal reimbursement program based on their income. Starting this year, districts could also automatically add a student to the benefit rolls if their family qualified for Medicaid.
But Walz and other backers of providing universal free meals said those forms created unnecessary barriers.
"This just makes sense," Walz said. "This is the assurance that no one falls through the cracks because a busy parent didn't fill out a form."
Minnesota is the third state in the nation to require schools to offer all students free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their family income, behind California and Maine. In Colorado, a similar law allows schools to opt in to a state-funded free meals program.
In a Senate floor speech earlier this week that's since gone viral, Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said he has "yet to meet a person in Minnesota who is hungry."
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan took aim at those remarks Friday when she opened up about the food insecurity her family experienced when she was growing up. Her family received food stamps and Flanagan's mother would sometimes refrain from eating dinner and tell her children it was because she wasn't hungry.
"It wasn't until I was an adult and I was a parent that I realized she was lying to protect me from the reality of our food insecurity," Flanagan said.
Advocacy group Hunger Solutions estimates that 1 in 6 Minnesota students experience food insecurity, about a quarter of them living in a household that doesn't qualify for free meals.
Willie Lumpkins, whose father was hit particularly hard by the increase in food and gas prices over the past year, said ensuring students have access to free meals is a step toward helping them succeed in the classroom.
"It's really stressful," he said of going hungry at school. "You're always angry. You're drowning in anxiety. It shouldn't be that way at all."
Some lawmakers, including some Republicans, argue that providing free meals for schoolchildren relieves the financial burden on families.
Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, estimates that a family of four living in White Bear Lake would save about $1,900 per school year if their children ate two meals at school. She sponsored the bill in the Senate and called it a "lunchbox tax cut," at the signing ceremony.
Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the bill in the House, said the legislation helps families who earn too much to qualify for federally funded free meals but still struggle to put food on the table.
"This is a bill that's going to make Minnesota a better place for everyone," she said.