ND Legislature votes down free school lunches

Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 4:57 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Nearly everyone agrees: no child should go hungry. But who’s responsible for feeding them when they’re at school? That’s the question lawmakers are trying to answer this week.

The state has a budget of about $18.5 billion. How much of that will go toward school lunches for poor families? After Tuesday? It looks like the answer to that question is nothing.

Getting enough to eat is vital to learning.

“It’s really important. We know that kids learn better and behave better when they’re not hungry,” said Representative Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo.

On that, just about everyone agrees. But should the state pay for it? A majority in the Senate said no.

“Yes, I can understand children going hungry, but is that really the problem of the school district? Is that the problem of the state of North Dakota? It’s really a problem of parents being negligent with their kids,” said Senator Michael Wobbema, R-Valley City.

Currently, the federal government pays for meals for children in households that make 130% or less of the poverty level. Families who are between 130% and 185% are eligible for reduced-price meals. House Bill 1491, which failed this week, would’ve covered meals for students whose families are between 130% and 200% of the poverty level. For a family of four, that means those making less than about $60,000.

“Presumably we espouse individual responsibility. And at what point in time do we just wave that away and make the state responsible?” said Senator Wobbema.

Those in favor of the bill say the Legislature will likely spend more money on things they believe are less important than feeding children, like using state dollars to finance private education.

“I would argue that there are some people in this room who are very much in favor of giving $24 million to offset some of the [private school] tuition costs. And yet, this is just a fraction of that dollar total to be able to feed kids,” said Senator Kristin Roers, R-Fargo.

The expanded school meals program would’ve cost the state about $6 million. The upcoming vouchers bill, which would use public funds to pay for private education, is expected to cost about $24 million. Senator Wobbema says there isn’t a conflict between the two.

“To me, they’re fundamentally different issues. People will argue that that’s not a true statement, but that’s where I’m at with it,” said Senator Wobbema.

But people who support the bill say they don’t believe a majority of everyday North Dakotans see it that way.

“North Dakota is in a very healthy financial position right now, and we are prioritizing other things that they might not see are as important as making sure our kids don’t go hungry,” said Representative Hanson, D-Fargo.

The bill failed on Monday by one vote.

Proponents say House Bill 1491 would’ve impacted about 10,000 children statewide. The bill was asked to be reconsidered again Tuesday, but that proposal was shot down by the Senate.