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Expanding school meal access gets close look in North Dakota

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Mike Moen

(Prairie News Service) Nearly 50,000 North Dakota children were served by hunger-relief groups last year. Their advocates hope that compels lawmakers to make sure all students have access to meals at school. 

The Legislature is considering bills that would expand eligibility for free meals, while also keeping schools from denying a lunch over unpaid debts. 

Heather Gades is the 2023 Miss Bonanzaville and a former North Dakota student, who was told she couldn't participate in her school's graduation unless her family paid off a $700 lunch debt. 

While they resolved the situation, Gades said she tells her story so that other students won't have the same experience. 

"We should not be threatening students with having one of the biggest accomplishments taken away from them," said Gades, "because of socioeconomic status and things outside their control."

One bill would end that type of practice. A separate measure would have provided $89 million to offer free lunches to all students, regardless of income. 

But cost concerns pushed Republicans to reduce the extra aid to $6 million. Hunger-fighting groups want lawmakers to reconsider, arguing that full access ensures each child has the opportunity to learn without hunger distractions. 

Fargo School Board member Robin Nelson said the extra aid is still welcome, noting it means an extra 10,000 students would be eligible for no-cost meals. 

But she said a full expansion would help in a variety of ways that go beyond improved learning. She described it as a long-term investment in making the state competitive. 

"If we had universal lunch, not only would that be good for the kids, it would be good for families," said Nelson. "And quite frankly, I think it would attract a lot of young families to our state, or keep them here."

Supporters say such a move would also reduce administrative burdens for school districts. The extra aid would be tacked onto the federal subsidies districts receive to offer free and reduced-price meals. 

Groups, including the North Dakota AFL-CIO, have testified in support of these measures, both of which have cleared the House and now move to the Senate.