Updated: 03/14/2014 7:35 AM KSTP.com By: Stephen Tellier
File Photo: USDA
It's an issue that sparked outrage across Minnesota: Children being denied lunch at school -- even perfectly good meals being thrown out -- because students couldn't pay for them.
On Thursday, lawmakers took a big step toward solving that problem. A bill that would plug the hole in school lunch funding came before the House, and it passed without a single dissenting vote.
"No child in the state of Minnesota should be turned away because of an inability to pay," said Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, the bill's main sponsor.
That was exactly the message Selcer sent to her colleagues on the House floor.
"My bill provides funding for 61,500 students across our state who now may or may not receive a hot lunch at school," Selcer told lawmakers.
Just last month, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid released an updated report on school lunches. It showed 53 percent of the state's schools refused to serve a hot lunch to students who couldn't pay for one -- they offered a less nutritious meal instead. Another 15 percent of schools refused to serve any meal whatsoever to such students. Inver Grove Heights, West St. Paul, and Stillwater were among several metro districts that admitted to having such a policy.
"Children can't learn when they're hungry," Selcer said.
Selcer said the report helped spur lawmakers to act. But she also defended the districts that denied meals in the first place.
"I don't think this is about laying blame. The state had not been providing the funding. School districts were doing the best that they could," Selcer said.
She points to the bill's bipartisan backing as a victory not just for students, but for the state.
"Minnesotans care about other Minnesotans. They want to make sure that all of our children have good nutritious meals and have a head start in life," Selcer said.
The funding gap was impacting students who receive reduced price lunches -- that's for families that make between $25,000 and just over $36,000 each year. The bill will effectively make school lunches free for those families, at a cost of about $3.5 million per year.
The bill still must pass the Senate, and Gov. Mark Dayton has already said he will sign it.