Talking school meals at the US Capitol

Submitted photo Executive board members of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, including Tracy Area Schools food service director Michele Hawkinson, met with members of Congress this week to talk about challenges facing school meal programs. Board members took a photo with Rep. Angie Craig. From left to right are Darcy Stueber of Mankato Area Public Schools, Rep. Craig, Michele Hawkinson of Tracy Area Schools, Julie Kronabetter of Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Schools, Cheryl Pick of Foley Public Schools, and Emily Malone of Prior Lake Savage Area Schools.

TRACY — Having healthy meals at school makes a big difference for kids. But school cafeterias are facing challenges like rising costs and restrictive federal mandates, Michele Hawkinson said.

Those were two of the concerns that Hawkinson, food service director at Tracy Area Schools and president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association executive board, helped voice to members of Congress this week. More than 800 school nutrition advocates from around the country traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of the national School Nutrition Association’s annual legislative action conference.

Hawkinson was among the Minnesota SNA members who met with members of Congress and their staff.

“The main purpose is to tell them what’s going on in school meals,” Hawkinson said. She and other Minnesota SNA members went to the offices of members of Congress including Rep. Angie Craig, Rep. Betty McCollum and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Hawkinson said school nutrition advocates called on Congress to increase funding to support school meals. In the 2022-23 school year, the Keep Kids Fed Act provided increased federal reimbursements for school lunches and breakfasts. But those extra reimbursements expired last summer, she said.

The loss of the reimbursements — 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast — adds up for school food services, Hawkinson said.

“It’s kind of hard to make meals and breakfasts without that money,” she said.

Food service providers are dealing with rising food and labor costs, she said.

Another concern for SNA members was proposed federal nutrition standards that would be more restrictive for school meals. For example, Hawkinson said, the new standards call for further reductions in sodium in school meals. But food service providers have already worked to cut sodium from school meals, she said.

“They’re as low as they can get,” shew said.

Minnesota SNA members also talked with members of Congress about having free school meals for all students.

“We would like it to be national,” Hawkinson said.

Minnesota has already started a universal school meal program. Schools around the state — including in Tracy — have seen more students eating meals at school, Hawkinson said.

“Everyone is seeing an increase in this, and now the stigma is gone,” she said.

Kids no longer have to worry about whether they can afford to eat lunch.

“We are feeding a lot more children than last year,” she said.

While universal free school meals has had some positive effects in Minnesota, there have also been challenges that school nutrition advocates are trying to address in the state Legislature. SNA members have spoken out about the need to allow more time for seating students at lunch. With more students getting meals, some schools are running into a time crunch, Hawkinson said.

“The lines are so long, these kids don’t get enough time to eat,” she said.

And while meals are now free for students, there are still some cost questions that remain. Hawkinson said schools still needed help addressing outstanding debt for school meals. School nutrition advocates are also calling on the state to reimburse the cost of a la carte milk, so the milk will be free even to students who bring their own lunches.

Hawkinson said this week was the second year she had been to the legislative action conference in Washington. It’s been a good experience, she said.

“It’s kind of a fun thing to do, and it’s getting our voice out there,” she said.


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