8 US states fund free student lunches through various means, such as a 4% millionaire’s tax and a $0.03 property tax rate increase.

8 US states fund free student lunches through various means, such as a 4% millionaire's tax and a $0.03 property tax rate increase.

Eight States’ Innovative Approach to Funding Free School Lunch Programs

Last week, Massachusetts became the eighth state to offer free lunch for all public school students, joining a small but growing roster of states that have expanded their free school lunch programs since the expiration of Congress’ COVID-19 federal free lunch funding.

Creative Funding for Free Lunch Programs

Massachusetts recently passed a program that provides free lunch to all public school students, regardless of family income. To support this initiative, the state has implemented a 4% millionaire’s tax on individuals earning over $1 million per year, alongside federal and state funding. This approach not only alleviates the financial burden on families but also ensures that every student has access to nutritious meals during the school day.

Massachusetts is not alone in its commitment to funding free lunch programs. Seven other states have implemented similar initiatives after the expiration of Congress’ COVID-era federal program for free lunches. California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont have all established free lunch programs for public school students.

Most States Mandate School Participation in Free Lunch Programs

Several states have made it mandatory for school districts to offer free lunch programs. In California, for instance, funding for free meals is included in the state’s budget through the Proposition 98 fund. This fund, amounting to $650 million, reimburses school districts for the cost of meals and determines the allocation for community colleges and K-12 schools.

Following in California’s footsteps, Maine introduced a bipartisan bill that received unanimous state Senate support. The estimated cost of $34 million annually is included in the state’s fiscal budget. Similarly, New Mexico allocated $22 million in its state budget for free school meals, with additional funds earmarked for improving school kitchens and cooking equipment.

Michigan, although it has offered free and reduced meals to about 50% of students for years, invested $160 million in its fiscal year budget to provide free meals for all eligible students. Minnesota’s free meal plan, funded by the state, is a significant investment of close to $400 million in its first two years, ensuring access to meals for all students.

Innovative Funding Approaches

States like Massachusetts, Colorado, and Vermont have taken a more creative approach to fund their free lunch programs. Colorado’s program, Healthy School Meals for All, was passed through a voter-approved tax measure. The program reduces income tax deductions for households earning $300,000 or more, ensuring sustainable funding for universal free lunch. Vermont’s program, despite facing opposition from Governor Phil Scott, resulted in a slight increase of $0.03 in the property tax rate.

The Impact of Free Meals

Advocates across states commend the implementation of free lunch programs for their positive impact on students. By removing the financial burden of purchasing meals, students can fully focus on their education. As Susan Caswell, principal of Comstock Elementary School in Michigan, emphasizes, “They should have to come to school to learn and not worry about where their next meal is coming from.”

The successful implementation of free lunch programs in these states has created a momentum for similar initiatives nationwide. Erika Edwards, the director of operations for Jefferson County schools in Colorado, highlights that “the availability of universal free meals during the pandemic absolutely changed that momentum.” With growing support and recognition of the importance of providing meals to students, more states across the nation may follow suit in the future.

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