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The Expand School Meals Act

Legislation will benefit over 50,000 Minnesota children

Thursday, October 1, 2009

U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced the Senate and House versions of the Expand School Meals Act today to ensure that low-income students are not denied nutritious food during the school day because they cannot afford to pay for it. Sen. Franken’s bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N. Mex.).

Currently, Minnesota provides free school meals to only very low-income Minnesota children, requiring thousands of children in low-income families to pay a reduced price of 40 cents for school meals.  Many of these children cannot afford to pay, and they’re being turned away from the school lunch counter.

The Expand School Meals Act would eliminate the reduced-price category and ensure that more than 54,000 Minnesota students get the meals they need.

“Parents have long known that children cannot learn on empty stomachs,” said Sen. Franken. “Hungry children perform worse on achievement tests, have trouble concentrating, and are more likely to act out in school. Securing access to healthy foods for low-income children is not only a means of reducing child hunger, but also an important strategy for narrowing the achievement gap.”

“I am pleased that the Senate will again consider extending the benefits of free school lunches to children in low-income working households.  Children should not go hungry at school because their parents cannot afford a co-pay. A hungry child is not an effective learner,” said Sen. Murkowski.

“We cannot expect hungry students to perform at their best.  During these difficult economic times, I believe we should do a better job ensuring that students have access to healthy meals while they’re at school,” Sen. Bingaman said. “I’m pleased to cosponsor this legislation, which would benefit nearly 24,000 New Mexico students from across the state.”  

“Hungry minds cannot learn on empty stomachs,” said Rep. Ellison. “This is why Senator Franken and I have introduced the Expand School Meals Act.  Low-income children in Minnesota, and around the nation, require healthy meals to excel during the school day. America cannot remain competitive with hungry children in our schools.” 

3.1 million low-income children across the nation are eligible for reduced-price school meals, and a growing number of these families can no longer afford to pay. In some districts, children in the reduced price meal program are stigmatized when they are forced to pay small fees in front of their peers, or when they are handed cheese sandwiches instead of regular meals on the days they cannot afford to pay the reduced fees. Teachers in Minnesota and elsewhere have reported that many children choose to avoid this stigma by skipping meals.  

Recent studies show just how devastating the impact of food insecurity is on the academic and psychosocial outcomes of school children. For example, researchers at the University of Michigan and Cornell University found that children ages 6 to 11 who lacked sufficient food had significantly lower arithmetic scores, and were more likely to have repeated a grade than their peers. Furthermore, they found that teenagers who lacked sufficient food were almost three times as likely to have been suspended from school.

Based on this research, it is clear that child hunger must be addressed in order to close the achievement gap and give every child in America a genuine opportunity to succeed.

  • The Expand School Meals Act would expand eligibility for free school breakfasts and lunches to children at 130% to 185% of the poverty line. Currently, these children are eligible for reduced price school meals, but many of their families cannot afford to pay even the reduced prices.  
  • As more families slip into poverty as a result of the economic crisis, the number of children who need but cannot afford reduced price meals is increasing.
  • Sen. Franken’s bill would phase in the reform over four years.

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