Nebraska bill would provide free school lunches to all public schools

(Courtesy: Adirondack Harvest)
Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 10:10 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Across the state of Nebraska, thousands of low-income students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches and breakfasts.

“Studies show that when a child is hungry, it hinders their ability to focus and earn in the classroom,” says Nebraska Senator Machaela Cavanaugh at the legislative hearing for LB99, one of her priority bills.

Cavanaugh, who represents West Central Omaha, wants to take it a step further when it comes to school meals.

“LB99 would ensure that every public school student has a meal during the school day free of charge,” she adds.

If it becomes law, every student - regardless of their family’s income level - will receive free breakfasts and lunches in public schools.

Of those who testified in favor of the bill were 17-year-old Jennifer Solano, a student at Lincoln East High School.

Solano says she comes from a family of immigrants and has always qualified for free or reduced-cost meals at school. During the pandemic when meals were free for every student, Solano says it was a relief.

“During the 2021-2022 school year, when my father was the only one working, barely making any income and not getting any clients, my family knew they didn’t have to worry about us eating at least one meal because we got a free lunch at school,” she says.

Solano says the free meals at LPS stopped, and she’s hopeful Nebraska will join the list of states who offer free meals to every single student.

“If this was passed it would mean a lot because I would know that others would have the opportunity to go to school and fully learn and engage with others without having to worry about needing to get lunch money from their parents beforehand or going the whole day hungry.”

In the Omaha metro, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals varies in each district:

The highest is Ralston at 52%, followed by Westside and Bellevue at 38.4% and 35%.

Papillion-La Vista is 27%, while Millard is 25%. The lowest numbers are in Elkhorn and Bennington at 9%, and Gretna at 8%.

Not on that list is Omaha Public Schools. The district already offers free meals to all students thanks to a federal program, the Community Eligibility Provision, which the district qualified for in December of 2021.

The CEP designation allows Omaha Public Schools to continue to offer free meals for enrolled students until the 2024-2025 school year. Other districts in the area don’t qualify for the program as of now, but educators say it makes a huge difference.

“When the CEP when into effect where I was working, you could feel the shift in school cafeteria culture, no one was worried about when they were going through the lunch line, kids were able to be kids, they were excited about the strawberry milk that was in stock, they grabbed their trays and sat down to eat a meal with their peers. I never had to hand out another slip of paper to a student or family that told them they owed money,” says educator Anahi Salazar.

Senator Cavanaugh tells the Education Committee that this is a step Nebraska needs to take in order to ensure a more successful future for kids in the state.

“I want to destigmatize the lunchroom for students that get bullied because they have to take the free meal that identifies their family as low income. Nebraska is a breadbasket of America and yet feeding America estimates one in six children in Nebraska are food insecure,” she says.