Starting this fall, students at Minnesota schools will get free meals regardless of their ability to pay.

A bill signed into law Friday by Gov. Tim Walz provides more than $800 million in funding for school lunches and breakfasts over the next four years. A free meals program was one of the top priorities this session for the governor and DFL lawmakers, who say they want to craft a state budget that prioritizes education and families.

In the Webster Elementary School cafeteria Friday in Minneapolis, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said providing meals will give students without access to enough food at home a better shot at succeeding in school.

“For far too many of our young people, the school cafeteria has been a place of shame and stigma,” she said before Walz signed the bill into law. “Our students with lunch debts are students who skipped meals. Hunger is often invisible. It looks like distraction or tiredness or disinterest. It can be easy to miss the students who are falling behind because they’re trying to learn on an empty stomach.”

About 42 percent of public and private school students in Minnesota were signed up for free school lunches last year. The Hunger-Free Schools coalition estimates that one in every six children in the state lacks consistent access to nutritious food.

Minnesota is the fourth state to create a free school lunch program, Walz said. California and Maine have universal lunch programs, and Colorado voters in November approved a new tax on the wealthy to pay for meals at participating schools.

The Senate approved the bill Tuesday 38-26. The House did so on a 70-58 vote in February.

Supporters say the program will relieve financial stress on students and families, help kids do better in school, and reduce stigma and shame by guaranteeing all students access to the same food.

Other cafeteria options, such as snack bars where students can purchase items like sugary drinks, would not be covered. Neither would second servings of school meals.

Wayzata, the only school district in the state that does not participate in the National School Lunch Program, will not benefit.

Estimated costs to the state are $190 million next year and $213 million by 2027.

Some Republican opponents said the legislation will benefit people who can afford to feed their kids and don’t need the help. Others said the state would be better off spending money on improved literacy instruction.

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