When the coronavirus pandemic stopped students from eating lunch in their schools, the schools started taking lunch to the students instead -- for free. School buses would drive into neighborhoods, park along a street and open their doors. School workers would hand out sacked lunches, as well as breakfast for the next day, to children and their parents.

Now a year later, students are returning to their schools, but they're still able to eat free of charge.

There's an effort underway to keep it that way, and a couple of school food-service administrators are helping to lead the charge. Carrie Frank of Dover-Eyota and Brenton Lexvold from Red Wing recently met with Rep. Angie Craig to discuss the possibility of creating a universal free-meal program. Both Frank and Lexvold are members of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association.

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The idea for universal free meals is not a new concept. However, it has received a push during the pandemic.

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“This has been on everybody’s radar for a lot of years,” Frank said. “And I believe the momentum is swinging toward making it a reality…. it’s an exciting time in school nutrition.”

In addition to Craig, Lexvold said the association has been able to speak with a number of representatives and officials from Minnesota's congressional delegation.

Even though providing free meals would require funding, Frank said there would be a lot of benefits for schools. For one, school districts have to pay any unpaid meal debt with money from their general funds. Having a federal meals program, she says, would allow schools to use that money toward education rather than paying the lunch debt.

There already is a safety net in place for families struggling financially: students can qualify to receive school meals for free or at a reduced price. However, both Lexvold and Frank said providing free meals to everyone would eliminate the stigma associated with that sign-up. Free meals across the board also would increase the number of students receiving healthy meals on a regular basis, Frank said.

"There's a lot of embarrassment about that: families don't do it for that reason," Frank said about signing up for the free and reduced lunch status. "There's all sorts of stigmas."

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, more than 33% of students in Olmsted County qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In Mower County, that number is more than 50%. Statewide, more than 37% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The numbers are even more stark when looking at some individual schools. More than 70% of students at Riverside Central Elementary in Rochester receive free or reduced-price lunch. By comparison, a little more than 18% of the students at Folwell Elementary qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Although there's no guarantee advocates such as Lexvold and Frank will succeed in securing universal free meals, the temporary version has been extended. The federal government recently announced it would allow schools to provide free lunch programs through the summer.

Lexvold said making sure students have access to nutritious meals on a daily basis is important.

“I think that’s the best thing that we can do to ensure the future of this nation," he said.