Port: If we really want to deliver relief to working families, stop charging them for school lunches

"As a father of two school-aged children, I pay more for school lunches than I do in state income taxes. If we want to deliver relief to families like mine, then why not cover school lunches?"

School lunch
File photo of school lunch tray.
(Forum News Service file photo)

MINOT, N.D. — There is a lot of talk in Bismarck about North Dakota's strong revenues and how to deliver some of that windfall back to the taxpayers.

After all, it all comes from us, and when the state has too much, they're obliged to give some back.

Most of the debate is focused on income tax cuts and property tax buydowns. In that debate, I'd prefer that we put ourselves on a trajectory to rid ourselves of the state's personal income tax, mostly because lawmakers have squandered $7 billion on trying to lower property taxes with little discernible relief reaching property owners, as evidenced by the fact that just about everyone is still ticked off about their property tax bills.

But there's another policy proposal, one that has significant potential for our state's families, which isn't getting discussed in the context of tax relief, and that's school lunch costs. School lunch fees aren't a tax, I know, except that they kind of are because our kids have to go to school, and they have to eat, and the cost of that is not small.

I did the math for my family. I have two children in school currently — one in first grade, the other a freshman in high school — and so far this school year, I've paid out $1,060.50 for their lunches. And we still have months of school to go.


I was surprised at that figure. The first time I ran the numbers, I used a calculator and thought I had to be doing something wrong, so I exported the data from my school's payment system and stuck it in a spreadsheet.

I didn't fat-finger any calculator buttons. The figure is accurate, and it's not because the meals are expensive. My daughter's daily food costs are less than $5. My son's daily meals are just slightly more because he eats breakfast at school, too.

State Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo, is the sponsor of legislation to have the state cover school lunch costs in full.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune

These costs add up to about twice what I paid in state income taxes. This is to say that, as a practical matter of arithmetic, the state paying for school lunches is a more meaningful relief to me, a middle-class father to two school-age children, than the state eliminating my income taxes.

Of course, the state could do both. The state should do both. But for some reason, despite how impactful the state paying for school lunches could be for working families, our lawmakers are resistant to paying for school lunches.

As it was originally introduced, House Bill 1491 , sponsored by Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, a Democrat from Fargo, would have appropriated $89.5 million in the coming biennium to pay for the lunches of North Dakota's school-aged children. It received universally positive testimony in committee but has since been amended to become a $6 million grant program.

For context, House Bill 1158, the income tax cuts backed by Gov. Doug Burgum and assorted lawmakers, would cost the state $566 million in revenues per two-year budget cycle. Senate Bill 2066, the rival property tax buydown, is expected to cost $203 million.

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Tax and income situations vary from household to household, but for many families in this state, covering the school lunch bill is worth more than an income tax cut.

I have an interest in this, being a father to school-age children, but there are a lot of families in this state which look like mine. This would mean relief for them, too. It would be a boon to working families in general, at a time when our state desperately needs more of them to come here and fill our job openings.


House Bill 1491, in its diminished form, has passed the House on an 80-11 vote, but not without some scorn and derision from certain lawmakers. Rep. Jeff Hoverson, a Republican from Minot whose day job is serving as a Lutheran pastor, said the bill would be "enabling."

Republican Minot Rep. Jeff Hoverson speaks at a rally against mandatory mask-wearing on April 5, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

“It brings us down a path that we will never be able to return. We aren’t accounting for the fact of what is our role versus what is the community’s role, the church’s role, the family’s role," he told our C.S. Hagen . "And I am afraid that we will also unintentionally enable people that maybe should be working, maybe getting off addictions and stuff like that. We’re just enabling."

Enabling what, exactly? Additional discretionary income for families with school-age children?

We all send our kids to school. Almost all of us send our kids to public schools. The taxpayers are already providing this service, and there's little disagreement — certainly not among normal, well-adjusted citizens — over whether the state should provide education. Heck, it's in our state constitution.

So why not cover the meals the kids eat at school as a part of that service? The cost to taxpayers would be a trifle relative to our overall education budgets, but the relief it would provide to families would be significant.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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