More students in Louisiana will now have access to free breakfasts and lunches, thanks to a new state law that expands free school meals in public schools.

Gov. John Bel Edwards held a ceremonial signing for HB 282 at the Lincoln Elementary School for the Arts in Marrero Wednesday (Sept. 5). The law, already in effect for this school year, provides free breakfast and lunch to K-12 students who meet federal eligibility guidelines for reduced-price meals.

Speaking to a crowd of schoolchildren, teachers and parents in the school cafeteria, Edwards said the law provides kids with the nutrition they need to grow, be healthy and learn as much as possible.

“I happen to believe that meals, breakfast, and lunch are such an important part of the day — they’re so integral to the kids being able to learn,” Edwards said. “I don’t think any kid in public school should ever have to pay for breakfast or lunch.”

Under the new law, the state Department of Education is required to cover the costs of reduced-price meals at a cost of about $860,000 a year. 

“The fact that [this bill] passed unanimously and its strong, bipartisan support just underscores what we can do when we put aside our parts and differences that work together for common good,” said Rep. Kyle Green, D-Marrero, the bill’s sponsor.

Rep. Delisha Boyd, D-New Orleans, said the law helps not only students, but also parents struggling to put food on the table. Boyd said this is extremely important to New Orleans, where a 2022 census estimate found around 88,000 city residents living in poverty. As of 2021, an estimated 37% of kids in the city lived in poverty, according to the Data Center. 

Children in households who make between 130 to 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price school meals, the prices of which are set by the federal Department of Agriculture. Before the law, eligible students had to pay 30 cents for breakfast and 40 for lunch, adding up to 70 cents per day — or up to $14 per month.

Nicole Wilson, a master teacher at Lincoln Elementary, said she had seen firsthand the need for such a law.

“I was around when the kids had to pay for lunches, and some of them did not have money on their account, and they would get bag lunches for the day and not the hot lunches,” Wilson said. Now, she added, her young students won’t have to worry about that anymore.

As of 2020, more than 600,000 Louisiana children were eligible for free or reduced school lunches. And every child in the state was eligible for free school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic following a federal policy that ended last year. Public schools that predominantly serve low-income children are still eligible to apply for a separate federal program that provides free school meals without gathering eligibility paperwork from students. 

Green said he intends to bring back the original version of the bill — which would have made free school meals available to all public school students, regardless of family income — in next year’s legislative session. Green’s push to expand free school lunches tracks with federal and state-level efforts to implement universal free school lunch policies in recent years. 

Research has shown that students who eat school meals tend to have better diet quality than students who don’t, and that eating breakfast at school is associated with better attendance rates and test scores, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“These young people today that we’re looking at there are future. They are going to be our workers, they’re going to be the ones who are practicing medicine and finding the cures for diseases and doing all sorts of wonderful things,” Edwards said. “But they’re not going to be able to do those things if they don’t have our support now.”

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...