Edwards encourages lawmakers to fund free meals to all K-12 students

Published 8:41 am Friday, September 8, 2023

(The Center Square) – Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday urged lawmakers to provide free meals to all students as he signed legislation to reimburse schools $860,000 to expand free meals.

Edwards was at Lincoln Elementary School for the Arts in Marrero on Wednesday for a ceremonial signing of Act 305. Lawmakers approved it last session, enabling free school meals to go to students who qualify for reduced-price meals through the federal school nutrition program.

“The cost of providing lunch to everyone, in the grand scheme of things, is relatively minimal,” Edwards said.

The new law, implemented for 2023-24, directs the Department of Education to reimburse schools for the difference between reimbursement rates provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a free meal and a reduced-price meal.

A fiscal note from June estimates the annual reimbursement costs at $859,454, or about $4.3 million over five years.

The legislation sponsored by Marrero Democratic Rep. Kyle Green with 16 cosponsors passed all committees and both chambers of the Legislature with unanimous approval. It’s expected to save families that participate in the reduced-price school breakfast and lunch programs about $14 per month per student. An estimated 7,000 would be eligible.

Reduced-price school meal prices set by the Department of Agriculture are 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch for children in households that earn between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level.

Green said the intent behind the legislation is to ensure students have the proper nutrition to focus on school, but has also highlighted the benefit of reducing shame on low-income students. About 600,000 Louisiana students rely on free or reduced-price meals. Green said estimates to provide free meals for all Louisiana public school students based on 2022-23 numbers would be roughly $40 million annually.

Green plans to introduce legislation next session to provide universal free meals, if he’s reelected. Green won his election to represent House District 83 in 2019 with 62.3% of the vote.

If lawmakers approve universal free school meals, Louisiana would join at least nine states that have passed legislation to do the same, according to the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center.

In Massachusetts, the move was funded by a new 4% tax on the state’s wealthiest residents, while in Vermont the cost of the program is covered by a 3 cent increase in the property tax rate. Other states that have passed universal free school lunches include California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Maine and New Mexico.

Lawmakers in another 25 states and the District of Columbia have considered legislation for universal free school meals over the last two years, the policy center reports.

2023 School Nutrition Trends Report from the School Nutrition Association, based on a survey of 847 school meal programs, found $19.2 million in unpaid meal debt.