Food bank partners with Fargo schools, nonprofits in support of school meal legislation

Two bills that passed the North Dakota House and are going before the Senate would help fund more free meals for students and end lunch shaming.

A woman in a white and black striped sweater speaks at a podium with media microphones on it.
Melissa Sobolik, CEO of the Great Plains Food Bank, expresses the organization's support for pending school lunch legislation on Thursday, March 9, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

FARGO — The Great Plains Food Bank joined Fargo Public Schools, YWCA Cass Clay and Lunch Aid North Dakota on Thursday, March 9, to voice their combined support for two bills being considered by the state Senate to helping hungry students in public schools.

Although one of the bills was gutted during negotiations, the organizations still support House Bill 1491 , which if passed by the Senate will provide $6 million to help qualifying families at double the poverty level or below pay for meals at school.

House Bill 1494, a companion bill to HB 1491, would direct schools not to deny students meals, not to take away food from a student, not to stigmatize students and not to limit a student’s participation in school activities because of meal debt.

As the state’s largest hunger relief program, the Great Plains Food Bank served 47,070 children in 2022, said Melissa Sobolik, CEO of the Great Plains Food Bank at 1720 3rd Ave. N., Fargo.

“That’s one in four of our North Dakota kids that received food aid last year, and quite honestly that is 47,000 too many. It’s pretty heartbreaking,” Sobolik said.


A sign that read "Great Plains Food Bank" is posted next to a table tent with the number 47,070 on it.
A sign in front of Great Plains Food Bank CEO Melissa Sobolik during a March 9, 2023, press conference displays the number of children who received food from the pantry in 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Recently, she heard about a student digging through trash looking for oranges that weren’t completely moldy.

“Can you imagine being so concerned with your younger sibling at home who is also going hungry that you are more concerned about dumpster diving instead of paying attention to your teacher?” she said.

A lack of healthy food impacts adolescents' future prosperity, leads to developmental impairments and can cause behavioral problems that continue into adulthood, Sobolik said.

Robin Nelson, a Fargo Public Schools board member and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Red River Valley, was disappointed that HB 1491 was chiseled down from offering universal lunch — appropriating $89.5 million for free meals for all — down to $6 million for families who qualify.

A man in a black polo shirt speaks at a podium with media microphones on it. On either side, tables covered with blue cloths have people seated at them.
Jared Slinde, spokesperson for the Great Plains Food Bank, joins with Fargo Public Schools, YWCA Cass Clay and Lunch Aid North Dakota to announce support for two legislative bills addressing hungry students in public schools on Thursday, March 9, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

“This bill was heavily amended in order to keep it alive, but we remain in support of the current bill, as well. They removed the initial intent from free meals for all and shifted it to qualifying families,” Nelson said, adding that parents are still required to fill out forms for proof of income in order to qualify.

“No families would receive reduced-price meals anymore, just free. The federal meals program will still be used, but the state of North Dakota will cover the income gap,” Nelson said.

About 30,000 students across North Dakota receive free meals, and about 8,000 students are eligible for meals at a reduced cost, Nelson said. If HB 1491 becomes law, about 2,000 more students may become eligible for free meals, and those receiving reduced-price meals would get free meals.

“But 10,000 more kids is only 20% of the 47,000 kids that the Great Plains Food Bank assisted last year, and that’s a small fraction. I would hope we can get to universal school lunches at some point,” Jason Boynton said.


Boynton helped found Lunch Aid North Dakota in 2019 after scrolling through a social media site and seeing a story about students and families being targeted by private collection agencies for the inability to pay school lunch debt.

The majority of people that YWCA Cass Clay serves meals to are children, said Julie Haugen, chief operating officer. Many of the children aren’t in school when mothers come to them for help, she said.

The shelter tries to get the children enrolled in school, and they provide free hot meals to families while mothers heal from trauma, Haugen said.

Last year, YWCA Cass Clay served 1,100 people, and after helping create West Fargo Eats, they assisted in delivering about 154,000 pounds to 11,000 people in the Fargo-Moorhead area, she said.

During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress funded free breakfast and lunches for students. That financial support ended in September 2022. At the same time, the Great Plains Food Bank saw a 14% increase in demand for food, Sobolik said.

“Families are still struggling with the aftereffects of the pandemic. When a child is fed, you have fed the future. No child deserves to go hungry. We can’t do this alone,” she said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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