May 25, 2024

Support Students With Meals, Shorter Bus Rides

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Should a child have to sit in class hungry? Should a family be forced to buy cheap foods of poor nutritional value, skipping fruits and other essential foods for a child’s growth and health, because school meals cost them too much?

These are choices forced on some families due to our current state and federal policies for school meals.

Should children spend two hours on a school bus going to and from school because there aren’t enough drivers to fill the routes necessary to make for shorter rides?

We have an economy generating a budget surplus in Minnesota – but we fail to address these two fundamental challenges for the health and safety of our children.

“Minnesota is a state that values education and wants to see every child succeed, but that is not possible when one in six students are trying to learn on an empty stomach,” state Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, is quoted in a Star Tribune story. “Now is the time for our state to step up and provide the food security families need and the education our students deserve.” These families face “staggering grocery bills relative to their take-home pay,” she said.

Of those one in six trying to learn on an empty stomach, school nutrition advocacy group Hunger Solutions says one-quarter come from a home that doesn’t qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

Jordan’s bill has an important ally – Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. The Democratic governor and former school teacher has made universal free school meals one of his highest legislative priorities.

“We will pass universal meals to ensure every student is given something to eat and no child has to worry about the color of their lunch ticket,” Walz said as the current legislative session got underway. He will make providing free meals part of his 2023-25 budget request when it is presented to the Legislature Jan. 24.

The Star Tribune reports that the estimated cost of the free meal program for all students would be around $185 million annually. 

School districts would be reimbursed for their breakfast and lunch costs by the Minnesota Department of Education with no income limits governing those who get the meals. It would also remove the stigma some children feel with they are identified as needing free or reduced price meals.

Multiple studies have shown that kids who don’t get enough to eat lack focus, fall behind in learning, are less social, and are less likely to participate in school activities. Getting a good breakfast and lunch free in school during the week means there is a better chance a family has the money to provide nutritional, filling meals at home at night and on the weekends.

Legislators have been told that feeding students “is a fundamental component in educating the whole child.”

Jordan’s bill has been criticized by some who say it provides rich families with benefits they don’t need. It is this fact that has Republican Rep. Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea, opposing the legislation. “It’s not because I don’t care about kids who are hungry — we want students whose families cannot afford to feed them to have lunch. Rather, this is a shotgun technique instead of surgical approach,” she is quoted in the Star Tribune.

To be eligible for free or reduced-price meals at a school, a family’s income must be 185% of the federal poverty level or lower. For a family with one child to be eligible for a free or reduced-price meal, where there is just one parent, the family’s income must be below $33,874. For a family of four, it is about $51,000 a year.

There are families that sit on the edge of the income guidelines, making just a few dollars too much to qualify but too little to avoid hard decisions about the meals they serve their children at home. No parent should be faced with such gut-wrenching choices in Minnesota.

Until recently, there was a free meal plan for every student as part of the federal government’s COVID-19 relief efforts. From March 2020 through August 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived income requirements and fully reimbursed districts for student meals. Though there were efforts in Congress to continue the program, they were unsuccessful.

Rural Minnesota has a lot of families that would benefit from a free meal program, families that make just a little too much to qualify for free and reduced price meals.

A great need for bus drivers

Rural school districts throughout Minnesota are suffering a shortage of bus drivers. What that means for school children is longer routes with some one-way bus rides being over an hour. If a bus driver gets sick, the school has to scramble to ensure all the kids get to school or back home.

School districts and bus companies that some districts contract with for bus service offer incentives including paying for the costs of getting a commercial driver’s license with a school bus endorsement. 

Driving a school bus is a part-time job that prevents holding another part-time job during the school year. Drivers work from around 6 in the morning until a little after 8 a.m., and for another two hours in the afternoon taking children home. They are on call in the winter should there be an early out, or a late start, due to severe winter weather.

Drivers don’t get paid unemployment in the summer when they are off. 

If we are to attract more bus drivers to shorten the routes, schools will need more funding to pay bus drivers, fund the purchase of buses, and pay the costs of fuel and maintenance. 

While the state’s massive surplus can help to jump-start programs allowing free meals for students and shorter bus rides, surplus funds are one-time money. They have been generated by projected income exceeding actual expenses. State budgets have to be built that fund school meal programs and transportation costs on an ongoing basis.

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