Starting this fall, Eden Prairie Schools students will be offered free breakfast and lunch thanks to a new law passed by the state Legislature on May 17, 2023.
Starting July 1, the Minnesota Free School Meals Program (MN-FSM) will permanently provide state reimbursement to schools that participate in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).
Students can have one reimbursable breakfast and one reimbursable lunch per day at no cost to them or the school district. All Minnesota school districts, charter schools, and non-public schools approved for the NSLP and SBP may participate.
MN-FSM revives the benefits of a COVID-era federal waiver that made school meals free for all students nationwide, regardless of family income. However, that waiver only ran from March 2020 to June 2022.
During the 2022-23 school year, most states, including Minnesota, reverted to the pre-pandemic system where only students who filled out paperwork for free and reduced lunch, and were approved, would get their meals for free.
However, in an effort to reduce childhood food insecurity across the board, Minnesota became the fourth state to approve universal free school meals during the last legislative session. As of early August, eight states have done the same.
Minnesota state Sen. Steve Cwodzinski (DFL-49, Eden Prairie), a former Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) teacher, said he strongly supported the bill.
“If we’re not meeting the physiological needs of our students, they’re not going to be ready to learn,” he said. “If they’re hungry, they can’t focus.”
Families should still complete application
Although families no longer need to fill out paperwork to get free meals, it’s still important to complete the Application for Educational Benefits, since this determines how much funding schools receive for educational programs and supports. The forms are available here, and EP Schools also mailed them to district families in early August.
Additionally, eligible families can qualify for other benefits, such as:
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits.
- Metro Transit’s Transit Assistance Program.
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Affordable Connectivity Program (reduced-price internet programs).
- Scholarships or discounts at some summer camps, athletics programs and/or child cares.
- Reduced fees for advanced placement tests and college applications.
Previous rules left some families facing tough decisions
For Eden Prairie families during the 2022-23 school year, USDA income eligibility guidelines meant that a family of four would have to earn less than 130% of the federal poverty line — i.e., less than $36,075 annually — to qualify for free school meals.
To qualify for reduced-price meals (which in Minnesota were provided for free), families would have to earn less than 185% of the federal poverty guideline, i.e., less than $51,338 annually.
However, this stranded many families on the cusp. “That family of four earning just above the $51,338, even by $2, didn’t qualify. But they didn’t have the money to actually pay for meals,” said Brenda Boehm, EP Schools’ food and nutrition services director.
“I guarantee you there were families who had to decide, ‘do I send my kid to school with a full and complete lunch every day, or do I keep the lights on at home?’” she said. “Families shouldn’t have to worry about that, and kids have no control over that.”
Boehm said the new law is long overdue: “A lot of kids rely on school food to eat anything, let alone a healthy, nutritious meal. But food service was the one part of a public school education that was not fully funded.”
Boehm said this didn’t make sense.
“Kids have to be in school,” she said. “They have their books and computers provided, they have classrooms provided, so in my opinion, free school meals also needed to be provided.”
For people who think taxpayers should not fund free school meals, Boehm said, “I would say we are teaching and feeding the future of America. Why can’t we do it for everybody?”
How reimbursable meals work
Under the new law, Minnesota students at participating schools are each entitled to one free reimbursable breakfast and one free reimbursable lunch per school day.
At Eden Prairie Schools, during breakfast, students must choose at least three items, including a ½-cup serving of fruit or vegetable, for it to be counted as a reimbursable meal. During lunch, students must choose at least three components for it to be counted as a reimbursable meal, one of which must be a ½-cup serving of fruit or vegetable.
“That’s kind of the thing we have to hammer home, that there has to be a fruit or vegetable,” Boehm said. “It’s really important for kids — they may not get these anywhere else. Sometimes there is pushback because they don’t want it, but it is a requirement for a reimbursable meal.”
If students choose not to take all of the components, it will no longer be considered reimbursable by the state, and they will be charged for their meal.
It’s also important for students to know that single-item purchases and non-reimbursable meals are not free.
If students wish to have a second meal, order à la carte, or have Mega Bites (an extra serving of the entrée item), those items must be paid for from student accounts funded by their families. Additionally, meals served to teachers, staff, and other adults are not complimentary.
However, EP Schools will provide one free milk per day for each child, even if they bring a meal from home.
Students can come into the cafeteria line as usual for breakfast and lunch, get their reimbursable meal, enter their PIN into the school computer system, and go eat. The difference this year is that there will be no charge for reimbursable meals.
“Parents will not have to worry about paying — they can simply just let their student come and eat,” Boehm said.
If families have any questions, they can visit the district website or contact the food service office at (952) 975-8055 or email@example.com.
Making sure kids eat is the ‘No. 1’ goal
Boehm, who oversees EP Schools’ seven cafeterias, said that she and her staff work hard to create appetizing meals within the required USDA standards.
“I want to make sure the kids eat,” Boehm said. “That’s my No. 1 thing. So I want to do everything possible to improve and increase participation.”
She said student and family feedback is important to help guide menu offerings.
For instance, soon after she started working at EPHS in July 2022, “The first thing that was brought to my attention was sweet potato fries and how the kids don’t want them,” she said. “They just want regular fries — sweet potato don’t crisp up as much, and it’s obviously a different taste and texture.”
However, USDA standards require the district to serve subgroup vegetables: red, orange, dark green, a legume, a starchy, then an “other” like celery.
Boehm made some creative shifts: “I found a way we could have fries every day by offering those other things throughout the week. Halloween day we started serving fries every day, and the kids are very happy.”
Available popular fruits include apples, oranges, fresh pineapple, grapes, and cantaloupe. Boehm said bags of baby carrots are another popular orange food. To fulfill the bean legume requirement, menu items like cowboy caviar or hummus are often provided to go with the vegetables.
Another change Boehm made at EPHS was in response to student requests for an ice cream machine in the East Commons since only the South Commons had one. After some delays, that machine will make its long-awaited debut during the second week of school. “The kids are going to be so excited, and I’m excited to have it for them,” she said.
When asked to predict the big favorites on this year’s menu, Boehm said, “Super nachos — as with every other year. They’re definitely our No. 1 seller. We also have a spaghetti day that’s pretty popular. Those are the two big ones.”
Menus and nutrition information for each school are available here.
Food service is now hiring
Boehm said that with the expected increase in free meal participation, more staff will likely be needed in the kitchens and lunchrooms. As of press time, there were seven open positions for the upcoming school year.
The biggest pros of working in food service are that employees don’t have to get up early or work late at night, nor work on weekends, holidays, or summer, Boehm said. But, “It’s important to know it’s very physical work. You’re on your feet and moving a lot.”
She added, “It’s also super fun and you get to know the kids and other people. It becomes like a family. The kids are so adorable and cute, especially at the elementary schools.”
Anyone interested in a food service position can learn more here.
Frank Farrell contributed to this report.
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