BISMARCK — Families of students in North Dakota K-12 public schools may not have to budget for their children's breakfast and lunch from 2021 to 2023, as a bill in the Legislature would have the state shoulder those costs.

House Bill 1413 would allocate more than $89.5 million to pay for breakfast and lunch for all K-12 students from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2023. The money would come from the state's Legacy Fund, which is derived from 30% of the state's oil and gas tax revenue and currently stands at almost $7.9 billion.

Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo, said in her testimony that she introduced the bill to decrease food insecurity for all North Dakota students. The bill would also help families with their school lunch debts and financial struggles, she said.

Hager said many students endure "lunch debt shaming" when they cannot pay for lunch and are forced to eat a different meal than their peers.

Low-income families can currently apply for the federal government's National School Lunch Program that provides families of a certain income free or reduced school meals. However, Hager said, many families who do not qualify for free or reduced meals, sometimes only missing them by a small margin, struggle to pay for food.

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"For many parents, writing a check to pay for school meals is as natural as breathing in and out," said Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, in written testimony. "However, for numerous parents, whose financial reality has been negatively impacted by COVID or other economic factors, that simple act has turned into an inflection point; do they pay for school meals or divert that money to pay the rent? Or to keep the lights on? Or to pay for prescription medicine? Or to pay the mortgage? Or to make the car payment?"

Research shows students achieve higher grades when they have healthy dietary behaviors, like eating breakfast every morning, and eat nutritious foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last year, the federal government provided funding so students in the U.S. could have free, nutritious meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. That ended at the end of December.

While providing free meals for all students is widely seen as a positive act, some of the bill's opponents say many families do not want the government, especially taxpayers, to cover meals for all children.

Hager said allocating from the Legacy Fund to pay for students' meals would be a positive investment in the state's students.

"I believe North Dakota's most essential legacy is our children, and their education is our future," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.