By one vote, North Dakota Senate rejects free school lunches for low-income kids

Opponents of providing free school lunches to low-income children said the responsibility to feed students should fall on parents.

A child holds a full lunch tray in a bustling lunch room.
Fargo Roosevelt Elementary students grab lunch in the school cafeteria on Jan. 30, 2023.
David Samson / The Forum

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Senate shot down a bill to expand a free lunch program for schoolchildren from low-income families, but it's possible the proposal could be revived.

By a 23-24 vote, the Republican-dominated Senate failed House Bill 1491 on Monday, March 27. The proposal sponsored by Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo, would have dedicated $6 million over the next two school years to cover K-12 students' lunch costs if their family income is less than double the federal poverty level. The House approved the bill last month.

The legislation is dead for now, but it could get a second life if a senator who voted against the bill Monday calls for it to be reconsidered and switches sides on Tuesday. Bill supporters said Monday afternoon they had not yet decided whether they will attempt to find a colleague willing to resurrect the proposal.

Hager originally proposed using nearly $90 million in state funds to provide free lunches to all K-12 students, but conservative members of the House amended the bill to only cover students below a defined household income threshold.

Families of four with incomes at or below $60,000 would have qualified for Hager's free lunch program in North Dakota, according to current poverty level income figures. A federal program already provides free meals to students from families making below 130% of the federal poverty level, so the state allocation would have applied to kids with family incomes between 130-200% of the poverty level.


Sen. Mike Wobbema, R-Valley City, said expanding the federal free lunch program would be a poor use of the state's finite resources.

“I can understand kids going hungry, but is that really the problem of the school district? Is that the problem of the state of North Dakota?" Wobbema said. "It’s really the problem of parents being negligent with their kids."

GOP Sens. Judy Estenson, of Warwick, and Janne Myrdal, of Edinburg, said existing programs make sure children don't go hungry at school. They contended that parents who earn more than 130% of the poverty level should be accountable for providing their kids' lunches.

"I’m still a ‘no’ vote on this because, again, this is a personal responsibility issue and not a starvation issue of children," Myrdal said.

Proponents of the bill portrayed it as a family-friendly, low-cost measure that would directly benefit children.

“I understand the personal responsibility argument, however a 9-year-old can’t get a job and can’t pay (for) their own school lunches," said Sen. Michelle Axtman, R-Bismarck.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jay Elkin, R-Taylor, noted that public funds already cover the cost of other critical school materials, like desks, books and laptops.

"Certainly, we could go the extra distance and provide the most fundamental tool for learning: good nutrition," Elkin said.


The bill received support from educational leaders, school districts, pediatricians and teachers unions.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, signed legislation this month to provide free breakfast and lunch to K-12 students in his state.

The North Dakota Senate advanced a separate Democratic-backed bill on Monday that would prevent schools from withholding meals to students with lunch debts. The House, which passed a slightly different version of House Bill 1494 in February, will reconsider the proposal with the Senate's amendments.

How they voted

YES: Axtman, Barta, Bekkedahl, Braunberger, Cleary, Conley, Davison, Dever, Dwyer, Elkin, Hogan, Kessel, Krebsbach, Larson, Mathern, Meyer, Patten, Piepkorn, K. Roers, Rummel, Sickler, Sorvaag and Weber.

NO: Beard, Boehm, Burckhard, Clemens, Erbele, Estenson, Hogue, Kannianen, Klein, Kreun, Larsen, Lee, Lemm, Luick, Magrum, Myrdal, Paulson, J. Roers, Rust, Schaible, Vedaa, Wanzek, Weston and Wobbema.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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