APS to halt Lunch Tray Project after Walz signs the universal school meals bill

Published 6:42 pm Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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Following Gov. Tim Walz’s signing of the universal school meals bill on Friday, Austin Public Schools has announced it will discontinue its Lunch Tray Project after this year.

The bill signed by Walz will provide breakfasts and lunches at no cost to participating schools and makes Minnesota the fourth state in the country to do so.

The other three includes California, Colorado and Maine.

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“If you’re looking for good news, this was certainly the place to be,” Walz said. “I’m honored and I do think this is one piece of that puzzle in reducing both childhood poverty and hunger insecurity.”

This program will begin at the start of the academic school year next year.

However, according to APS Food and Nutrition Director Mary Weikum, the Lunch Tray Project has the money available to get it through the end of this year.

According to Executive Director of Finance and Operations Andrew Adams, the remaining funds will be used by the end of this year.

“We’re going to use it to offset any debt at the end of the year that students have,” Adams said.

The Lunch Tray Project began in 2018 and is 100% supported by donations with goal of ensuring that every student in the Austin district had access to food during the day.

APS’ program was a step toward lifting an extra weight off parent’s shoulders.

“Over the years we’ve provided meals for, I would say, a hundred of the school’s families that struggled to pay for school meals,” Weikum said. “We all know kids behave better and learn better when they have food. This, for us, is one step toward eradicating food insecurity in our district.”

This new bill will cost the state of Minnesota close to $400 million in the first two years and grow in price in the future. It covers the cost of meals, but not of second helpings or of separate a la carte items.

However, there remains some question surrounding the state’s Minnesota free and reduced meals, which schools use as a determining factor in receiving compensatory funds from the state.

The free and reduced lunch program is based on household income. Now that meals will be free to all, there remains a question as to how that funding will be determined in the future.

“As with every district, we’re concerned what that means for compensatory money,” Weikum said. “If everyone is getting free meals, it’s difficult to get applications in to see the free and reduced percentage each year.”

According to Adams, the governor and legislature are currently working on what that plan entails. Currently, they are working on a five-point plan to ensure there is no drop off.

At the same time, it’s hard to truly detail what kind of effect that will have down the line when a new compensatory plan comes into play, likely 2024-25 school year, which in the near future doesn’t create a lot of problems because school districts know a year ahead of time what that revenue will be.

Still, Adams said it’s just hard to determine what the future will look like.

“I think it’s too early to tell,” Adams said. “The reason that I say that is … We don’t really know the financials or mechanics of it.”

— Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this report.