Free meals for all could be tricky recipe for Detroit Lakes School District

The new program is great for hungry students and families, but creates some potential problems as well.

RSV Elem Students eating Lunch (edited).jpeg
Roosevelt Elementary students eating lunch. Thanks to a bill signed into law on March 17, 2023, all students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch next school year.
Contributed / Detroit Lakes School District

DETROIT LAKES — Students in Detroit Lakes will be able to eat breakfast and lunch for free starting next school year, thanks to a bill signed into law March 17.

Minnesota public and private schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program will now offer one free breakfast and one lunch to students each day, courtesy of the state and federal governments.

“Obviously it will be very beneficial to families and students,” said Jason Kuehn, director of finance and operations for Detroit Lakes Public Schools.

Minnesota had something similar for students during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Detroit Lakes and other school districts providing free meals to students during the 2020-2021 school year and again in the 2021-2022 school year, he said.

The new program will cover all school lunches and breakfasts, even if families don’t meet current federal USDA household income guidelines.


It’s expected to cost Minnesota about $400 million in the first two years, and will cover the cost of meals, but not of second helpings or separate individual items.

The Detroit Lakes School District has already been providing free breakfasts to all its students for the past six to eight years, so the new program will essentially mean adding free lunches for all, and providing snacks during qualifying extracurricular activities, Kuehn said.

The school district preps and prepares much of its food at a central kitchen leased from M State, but kitchen workers at each school building bake and serve the food, he said.

If pizza is on the menu that day, for example, the pizza will be prepared at the central kitchen and baked at each school building, then served hot to students.

“That was part of our (facility) upgrades,” he added. “Each building has either a new or upgraded kitchen area.” Each building also has a commons area with room for students to eat. “That’s not an issue,” he said.

The new program is great for hungry students and families, but creates some potential problems as well.

Under the existing system, the federal government reimburses school districts for meals provided to qualifying students — about 45% of Detroit Lakes students now qualify for those free or reduced, federally funded meals.

In some situations, those same kids also benefit from free or reduced activity fees or other academic costs that are pegged to that “free or reduced meal” status.


And school districts benefit, too: The federal government bases a number of grants and other revenue streams on that percentage of kids getting free or reduced meals — even though those grants and revenue streams have nothing to do with the food program.

That's why “understanding our true free and reduced meal count is important to the district,” Kuehn said.

So ideally, the feds will continue to fund the 45% of kids now receiving free meals, and the state will pick up the cost for the other 55% who will receive free meals.

The concern is that, with the state providing free meals to all students, there will be less incentive for parents to provide documentation for their kids to qualify for the federal free and reduced meals. And that will hurt the school district’s bottom line, which hurts everybody.

One positive note is that — thanks to Minnesota joining a pilot program — most students whose families qualify for Medical Assistance through the state are now automatically enrolled in the federal free and reduced meal program at school.

“Direct certification has helped a lot,” Kuehn said.

But it’s not clear yet what the state’s reimbursement rate will be for the free meals, he said. That’s important because the district buys the food and pays for the meals to be prepared and served — then hopefully gets reimbursed enough to cover its costs.

The Detroit Lakes School District, with about 2,800 students in prekindergarten through grade 12, has about a $1.8 million food service budget this year.


Detroit Lakes Public Schools served more than 96,000 breakfasts and more than 250,000 lunches — free, reduced and full-priced — in the 2021-22 school year.

And with inflation being what it is, budgeting for meals far in advance can be difficult. “The price of food is up, and the supply chain issues are still there,” he said.

The important thing, however, is that students not go hungry while they’re trying to learn.

“There are a lot of families and students that will greatly benefit from this,” Kuehn said.

Bowe covers the Becker County Board and the court system for the Tribune, and handles the opinion pages for the Tribune and Focus. As news editor of both papers, he is the go-to contact person for readers and the general public: breaking or hard news tips, story ideas, questions and general feedback should be directed to him.
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