SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — One month after the South Dakota Legislature killed a bill to provide free school meals to K-12 students, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law to do just that.
“This is a politics of hope and joy,” Walz said Friday as he signed the bill at Webster Elementary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Once the law goes into effect, all Minnesota students regardless of their parents income will have access to a free breakfast and lunch every day at school. The bill comes as food insecurity grows to record highs across the state.
“We know that there are a lot of families that, you know, budgets are tight and this is one expense that we can take off of their plates and one last thing that they have to stress about,” Hunger Solutions’ policy director Leah Gardner told KELOLAND News Friday.
Due to inflation and the ending of emergency SNAP benefits, Gardner said that low-to-middle income families are struggling to find the money to keep their children fed at school.
“We had a parent advocate that was talking about how this really adds up for her. She’s got three kids in school and… $200 at least for her per month. I mean that’s a lot when you think about money that could be spent on the rest of your grocery budget feeding your kids well at home,” Gardner said.
The need for food grows in southwest Minnesota
Data from Hunger Solutions shows that in 2022, visits to food shelves increased by more than two million from the previous year. The need for food increased across all ages with seniors being the most impacted followed by children seeing large increases.
Lincoln County saw the highest percent growth of visits to food shelves in 2022 with an increase of 442.2%. Neighboring Murray, Noble, Pipestone and Rock County also saw an increase in total visits throughout the year.
Among those visits, all counties except Rock County saw an increase in child visits.
“All communities across Minnesota, whether it’s rural, urban or suburban, even our most affluent suburbs, we’re seeing those food shelves are seeing way more people than they’ve ever seen before. People that have never, you know, felt they’d be in that position before,” Gardner said.
In South Dakota, rural food pantries have also been seeing an increase in visitors, especially first-time users of such resources, as the cost of food continues to rise. During the legislative session, Democratic Representative Kadyn Wittman of Sioux Falls attempted to bring a similar bill to South Dakota but was unable to advance it out of committee.
Gardner and Hunger Solutions have long advocated for universal meals for students with their Hunger Free Schools campaign started after pandemic-era policies provided all students in America with free meals.
“I think it was about three years ago, when we first started working on this and we knew it was a long game but yeah, everything just really aligned well this year for us to get it done,” Gardner said.
Through the bill, Gardner said the state will draw on federal resources to expand free meals to all students, regardless of whether they would have previously qualified.
At Friday’s signing, student advocate Will Lumpkins spoke on the importance of providing every child a meal while at school.
“Knowing just from my experiences it’s really hard to get through the day not having food,” Lumpkins said. “It’s really stressful, you’re constantly angry, you’re always anxious and when you’re learning and you’re in a learning environment it should not be like that at all.”