Iowa Senate Democrats want to prove the saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” wrong when it comes to public school students.
On Wednesday, 13 of the chamber’s 16 Democratic senators introduced SF 303, which would allow all Iowa public school students to receive free lunch and breakfast at school regardless of their family’s income. The bill’s lead sponsor is Sen. Janice Weiner (D-Iowa City).
According to the Iowa Department of Education, 42.7% of Iowa’s public school students were already eligible for the free/reduced lunch program in the 2022-23 school year.
The freshman legislator thinks this bill could help with a slew of food insecurity-related issues, recalling “huge lines at food pantries” during the pandemic’s early days. She also pointed to Republican bills that would restrict food for SNAP recipients and means testing for other public assistance as contributing to hunger.
“We’ve heard about the rise in the number of kids around the state who are on free and reduced lunch,” Weiner said. “We’ve heard about lunch debt and lunch shaming—and there’s also a lot of rural poverty that people don’t talk about but they should.”
Weiner noted the federal government, as part of its COVID relief strategy, made school lunches free from the early days of the pandemic until June 2022. In just the Iowa City School District the program made a big difference she said.
“This past year when there was federal funding for that in the previous school year and the kids were back in school, without having barriers there and without paying attention to who was ‘free and reduced lunch’ and who is not, the uptake of breakfast went up 100% and breakfast went up 200%,” Weiner said.
To pay for it, Weiner’s bill would create a standing appropriation from Iowa’s general fund to the Iowa Department of Education to cover the difference between the cost of the meals and federal funding received to pay for the meals.
“Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry,” Weiner said. “We’re putting all this effort into getting people to pay their lunch debt, pay their bills—why? We’re investing in other things. We’re investing a huge amount now through, whether you want to call them ESAs or vouchers, we’re investing a huge amount in private schools. What if we just fed kids?”
It won’t likely go anywhere in Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature, but Weiner said she plans to reach out across the aisle anyway.
“I hope that I am pleasantly surprised, but I wanted people to see that the concept’s out there,” Weiner said.
by Ty Rushing
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