ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Lunches and breakfasts would be free to Minnesota students regardless of income under a bill that won approval in the state Senate on Tuesday.

Universal free school meals for all students have been a Democratic priority this session. But even a few Republicans crossed over as the Senate passed the bill 38-26 and sent it back to the House for its final stamp of approval on some language changes before it goes to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz for his signature.

The state will pick up the difference between federal reimbursements and the actual costs. It's estimated that the program will cost the state about $400 million in a two-year budget period.

“Being hungry makes learning almost impossible," said Democratic Sen. Heather Gustafson, of Vadnais Heights, the lead author, who is also a teacher. "This is a bill that will ensure every student, K through 12, in Minnesota is going to get the food they need while they're at school.”

Nearly 275,000 Minnesota students now get free or reduced-price lunches, Gustafson said roughly one in six children are considered “food insecure,” meaning they don't know when they will get their next meal. Around 18.5% of Minnesota students likely qualify for free or reduced meals but don't get them, she added, often because of instability within their families. And for families that are just over the poverty line or need a break, she said, guaranteed meals would mean one less thing to worry about.

“We shouldn't make children pay the price or go hungry at school for problems that are out of their control,” she said.

Across the country, school officials say kids are hungry — just as pandemic-era benefit programs have lapsed — and there is growing concern about the effects on kids’ ability to learn. Soaring food prices are adding to strains on families who now getting less financial assistance. Around 9 million children nationwide are food insecure, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Republican critics said the bill wasn't needed and that a better use of the money would be to focus instead on reading, writing and arithmetic.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch," GOP Sen. Steve Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, said. "The people of Minnesota are paying in this bill over $400 million in taxes to pay for the lunches of kids, the majority of which are already having their lunches paid for by their families now.”

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