Federal bill would permanently increase school meal reimbursement rates

Also in this week’s K-12 legislative update: Several states introduce or advance universal free meals bills, while others look to expand local procurement in schools.
School lunch trays on a table
A new federal bill would permanently increase school meal reimbursement rates. / Photo: Shutterstock

School nutrition operators were given a glimmer of hope for higher meal reimbursement rates with the introduction of the Healthy Meals Helps Kids Learn Act late last week. It’s also been busy couple of days at the state level, with a handful of state lawmakers advancing or introducing universal free meals bills. 

Here’s a look at the latest in school nutrition legislation. 

A federal bill would permanently up meal reimbursement rates

A bill introduced by U.S. Representative James P. McGovern seeks to permanently increase the reimbursement rate for school meals. 

Under the Healthy Meals Helps Kids Learn Act,  the federal reimbursement level for all free, reduced-price and paid-rate school meals would increase by 45 cents for every lunch served and 28 cents for every breakfast served, with a yearly adjustment.

“If we want America’s kids to remain competitive in the 21st century global economy, we can’t just teach them science and math. We need to ensure they have access to healthy, nutritious food at school,” said McGovern in a statement. “The next generation of Americans—our future doctors, nurses, engineers, mechanics, and leaders in every field across the country—all need us to step up and improve the quality of food in our schools. Food is just as important to their education as a textbook or a laptop. And if we can give our children healthy breakfasts and lunches as a part of their school day while supporting locally sourced foods and scratch-cooked meals, it will be a win-win for our economy, our farmers, and our students.”

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) pushed attendees to bring up the bill to their state representatives during SNA’s Legislative Action Conference earlier this week. 

School nutrition operators are still struggling with rising costs and worry that reimbursement rates will fail to keep up. While their programs currently receive higher reimbursement rates through the Keep Kids Fed Act, those are set to expire by July. 

Nearly all K-12 operators surveyed for the SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Report (99.2%) are concerned that the subsequent reimbursement rates may be inadequate. 

Minnesota lawmaker looks to establish a farm-to-school program 

A new bill introduced in Minnesota would create a farm-to-school program in the state. State Senator Heather Gustafson introduced SF 2158, which looks to increase the amount of locally grown food in school meals through training, grants and technical assistance for schools and producers. 

The bill allocates $2 million from the state’s general fund in fiscal year 2024 and an additional $2 million in fiscal year 2025 to fund the program. It has been referred to the Agriculture, Broadband and Rural Development Committee.

A companion bill was also introduced in the House and referred to the House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee.

Universal free meals bills in New Mexico and Connecticut move forward

Lawmakers in New Mexico and Connecticut have advanced their state’s respective universal free meals bill. 

The New Mexico Senate passed the Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights Act, which would provide free school breakfast and lunch to all students daily, regardless of family income. 

If signed into law, that bill would go into effect in July. It now heads to the House. 

New Mexico currently offers free meals at school to students who qualify for reduced-price meals. 

In Connecticut, a universal free meals bill also recently advanced. The legislature’s Committee on Children voted in favor of Bill 929, which would provide free school meals to all students. 

All students in the state current receiving free meals thanks to funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act; however, those meals are set to expire at the end of the school year. 

The bill now heads to the Office of Legislative Research and Office of Fiscal Analysis.  

Wisconsin budget includes funding for free meals and meal reimbursement 

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has earmarked funding for universal free meals and higher meal reimbursement rates in his 2023-25 executive budget

The budget includes $4.3 million in fiscal year 2023-24 and $4.7 million in fiscal year 2024-25 to provide a school breakfast reimbursement of 15 cents per meal under current law. In addition, an extra $2.75 million would go towards providing an extra 10-cent meal reimbursement for school meals that source food locally. 

Finally, the budget would also allot $120.2 million to set up the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids program, which would provide universal free meals to students during the 2024-2025 school year. 

Governor Evers is not the only state leader to include funding for universal free meals in the budget. The governors of New Mexico, Michigan and Minnesota have also included such funding in their proposed 2024 budgets. 

Iowa bills look to expand local procurement in schools, universal free meal access 

Bills recently introduced in Iowa would expand universal meal access and bulk up farm-to-school efforts. 

Under HF 575, the state would cover meals for students who qualify for reduced-price meals. That bill has been referred to the House Education Committee. 

Also debuted was HF 558, which would establish a local produce program for schools in the state. 

The program, which would be overseen by the state’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, would reimburse schools that purchase local produce for meals. School districts would have to apply each year to participate. 

If passed, that bill would go into effect immediately. It has been referred to the House Agriculture Committee.

New York lawmakers continue push for universal free meals 

Lawmakers in New York have introduced bills to provide universal free meals and are continuing to press Governor Kathy Hochul to include free school meals for all in her state budget. 

A01941 would offer free school meals to all students regardless of family income level, and has been referred to the Committee on Education. 

The bill has been introduced by Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas who has joined other legislators, as well as education, anti-hunger, nutrition, health and equity advocates, at the state Capitol multiple times to call on Governor Hochul to fund universal free meals for all. 

“In over a hundred and sixty pages of the Executive proposal, the term ‘hunger’ was not mentioned once. At the same time, support for universal school meals has continued to grow and has gained bipartisan support as my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the legislature understand this as a moral imperative,” said González-Rojas during her most recent visit to the Capitol earlier this month. “Emergency pandemic EBT, or food stamps for hungry families, has now expired so our state is facing increasing food insecurity as Congress remains in gridlock. I urge Governor Hochul to understand the public health and education benefits of providing free breakfast and lunch to every student across our state. Hungry children cannot learn and you cannot put a dollar sign on feeding our kids.” 

A companion bill has also been introduced in the New York Senate

See which states currently offer, or are considering, universal free meals via the map below:



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