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Free school meals on the horizon as Minnesota food shelves grapple with continued need

Minnesota's new free school meals policy expected to take pressure off food shelves
Minnesota's new free school meals policy expected to take pressure off food shelves 01:54

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. –  It was a busy Monday afternoon at PRISM food shelf in Golden Valley -- a typical scene in recent months as families struggling to afford necessities stock up to help them get by for the week.

Even though the worst of the pandemic is over, executive director Michelle Ness said the visits are record-breaking: a 36% increase compared to the same time last year.

"The reality is that families who were struggling prior to COVID continue to have significant challenges," Ness said.

Ness credits some of the uptick to the end of some COVID-era programs, like boosted food assistance benefits. But she also noted while overall the cost of consumer goods is waning, food prices are still high, creating additional challenges for PRISM to afford stocking its shelves.

Donations have also decreased from members of the community and grocery stores, she said.

"All of those things mean that each family is not able to get quite as much," Ness said. "We're a supplement. We're not replacing all the needs a household has, but we want to do the most good."

But soon there will be relief for some families struggling as all children -- regardless of family income -- will get a free breakfast and lunch while at school starting this academic year.


For families with multiple children in the classroom, that could mean savings of a couple hundred dollars per month. As a result, there could be fewer trips to the food shelves for some families, Ness said. 

"The hope is that it relieves some of the pressure for the families that we're serving. These are fewer meals they need to be worried about," she said.  

The Minnesota Legislature approved the new policy this legislative session; a few other states have done the same. Schools must be enrolled in the national lunch and breakfast programs in order to qualify.

The federal government will still reimburse for meals it otherwise would pay for children who meet the requirements, while the state will pick up the tab for the difference of covering everyone else. That will cost the state more than $440 million in this two-year state budget.

"The haves and the have-nots in school lunch room is not a necessary thing, and just feed our children, and so I'm really excited about that," Gov. Tim Walz said last week at a news conference touting the one-time rebate checks to some taxpayers. "And I think coupled with these payments, we're feeling this -- going back to school feels a lot easier this year."

Demetrius White, who was at the governor's event, said he is a struggling father of three and guaranteed breakfast and lunch at school will help his family.

"It's always a time of need," White said.

PRISM and other food shelves prefer financial donations over food. They can stretch that dollar further by buying in bulk, which helps them serve more people.

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