PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Less than a week after the Minnesota House of Representatives advanced a bill to guarantee free school meals, neighboring South Dakota voted to kill a similar bill.

Monday the House Education Committee heard testimony on HB 1221, a bill that would provide free school lunches for all public school students. Democrat Kadyn Wittman told the committee that no child should go hungry due to circumstances out of their control.

“Our public school systems take care of everything a student needs except guaranteeing them a meal every single day,” Wittman said.

Also speaking in support of the bill was Rhonda Ramsdell, the food service director with the Meade School District. Ramsdell told the committee that on average the district serves 1,700 lunches per day with at least 200 of those students having no money in their account and no lunch to bring from home.

“All children depend on the adults in their life to provide food, but for these children who aren’t guaranteed even lunch every day, this is food insecurity at its worst,” Ramsdell said.

Ramsdell also spoke to the issue of rising inflation impacting middle-income families who just miss the mark of qualifying for free or reduced meals. She added that for the families that do qualify, it can be hard to get parents on the phone and sign the paperwork needed to enroll their child in the program.

Sioux Falls high school student Milo Hennings told the committee that he was once a student who was unable to afford lunch.

“Not being able to eat a full and healthy meal greatly impacted my day and my energy levels which impacted my grades and my ability to do better in school,” Hennings said.

Hennings added that since the ending of the federal program guaranteeing free meals to everyone, he’s noticed more people at his school going without food.

“Even though many of the school districts in our state have free or reduced lunch rate programs, this still does not help many students and their families that don’t qualify or when the parents simply do not apply for the program,” Hennings said. “These are two issues that the student cannot solve themselves and having to worry about eating a healthy meal and how much that meal will cost should be the last thing on their mind while they’re trying to learn.”

In addition to Ramsdell and Hennings, Sioux Falls resident Benjamin Ford, Steven Russell, lobbyist with Guardians of the Children, and Deb Fischer-Clemens with the American Heart Association also spoke in support of the bill.

Opponents blast cost, lessons taught

Leading the opposition to HB 1221 was newly appointed Secretary of Education, Joseph Graves.

“The fiscal impact of this bill would be approximately $33.3 million,” Graves told committee members. “Additionally, we think that number would increase very quickly because then people would simply decline to fill out free and reduced lunch forms.”

As the former superintendent with the Mitchell School District, Graves spoke of lessons he learned with the federal program that provided free lunch to students over the last couple of years.

“The first lesson provided was food’s free,” Graves said. The second lesson is that food can be wasted, he added.

Graves told the committee that during the two years free meals were offered, dozens of meals would be thrown out daily without being touched by students. Graves provided an anecdote about the visit of a federal delegate for the program. Graves wanted to demonstrate how much food was being wasted and so he spread out the unopened, pre-packaged items along two, eight-foot-long tables.

“I decided I wasn’t going to show the member of the federal delegation because I was embarrassed,” Graves said.

Graves told committee members that he is not aware of any district that doesn’t provide a meal to students even if they cannot afford it.

“What I think we’ve created here, especially during the pandemic time, is that everything comes from the government.”

Sen. Jim Bolin (R-Canton)

Republican Senator Jim Bolin also spoke in opposition to the bill citing his experience as a former teacher.

“What you’re really doing here, if this bill were to pass, is providing what I would call, sort of the equivalent of a middle-class entitlement for those that can afford lunches already,” Bolin said. “It doesn’t seem right to me.”

Bolin continued saying that he doesn’t believe that this would be a good teaching lesson for students.

“What I think we’ve created here, especially during the pandemic time, is that everything comes from the government. Everything’s free, everything’s free and comes from the government,” Bolin said. “I don’t think that’s a good lesson to be communicating to students at this time.

In her rebuttal, Wittman said that with public schools, that is the lesson that should be learned.

“The government provides them rides to and from schools, we provide them teachers, we ensure that they have a good public education; why would the government not also feed those children while they’re legally obligated to be there?” Wittman said.

Rising school lunch debt impacting SD schools

According to Ramsdell, the Meade School District has a federal fund balance of over $700,000 with over $6,000 in school lunch debt. But the district cannot use those federal dollars to pay off student debt nor does Ramsdell believe in using district education funds in an already tight budget to pay off the debt. Instead, Ramsdell said that they have relied on more than $6,000 in donations from organizations, businesses and individuals within the community.

“There’s just not a pot of money sitting around at the school district for me to access,” Ramsdell said.

“Isn’t that unfortunate that you’re sitting there with three quarters of a million dollars and you can’t pay for student lunches?” Republican Representative Roger DeGroot replied.

I truly cannot think of a cause more worthy of investment than South Dakota’s children.

Rep. Kadyn Wittman

In her rebuttal, Wittman questioned the hundreds of millions of dollars of surplus money that the state has.

“The state of South Dakota ended its 2022 fiscal year with a $115 million surplus that was deposited into the state’s budget reserve. I truly cannot think of a cause more worthy of investment than South Dakota’s children,” Wittman said.

After a period of discussion among lawmakers, the committee voted to kill the bill with Democrat Erin Emery being the only ‘no’ vote.

Wittman told KELOLAND News that she is “extremely disappointed” in the motion to kill the bill.

“I wasn’t surprised by the opposition, but if the main argument against this bill was the fiscal aspect of it then I completely disagree,” Wittman said via text message. “There is no cause more worthy than investing in our school children.”

Wittman plans to bring a similar bill to the 2024 legislative session.