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Oklahoma lawmakers to consider expanding school meal programs, but GOP views vary

A school lunch line.
A school lunch line.

Lawmakers and child nutrition advocates say there’s a “growing conversation” at the state Capitol on expanding school meal programs, but opinions among the Republican majority are mixed.

The topic has been in and out of Oklahoma news headlines over the past year, most recently when Gov. Kevin Stitt turned down federal funds for a summer food assistance program for children.

Families and schools have reported confusion and outstanding cafeteria debt since the federal government stopped paying for universal free meals in schools. The pandemic relief program lasted for two years and ended in June 2022.

Some Republican lawmakers say they want to boost the state’s investment in providing free meals in schools. Others say they’re not interested in footing the bill for expired federal initiatives.

Last year, a bill to raise the household income threshold for a student to qualify for free meals passed the state House with overwhelming support, but the state Senate never gave it a hearing.

That legislation, House Bill 1376, is still eligible for consideration when lawmakers gavel in for their next session on Feb. 5.

The bill’s author, Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, filed two more pieces of legislation on the issue. Garvin said she developed both bills with Hunger Free Oklahoma, an organization advocating against food insecurity.

Senate Bill 1473 is a farm-to-school program that would offer grants to local farmers and producers to grow fresh products for school districts. It also would offer grants to schools to buy locally grown food products.

Garvin’s SB 1363, called the Thrive Act, would reimburse 80% to 100% of the cost for high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all of their students, as long as they also enroll in the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision program. The CEP program reimburses schools for the same purpose — providing free meals to all students regardless of their family’s income.

These bills could build the local market for Oklahoma-grown products while helping schools provide more free meals and fresher food, said Chris Bernard, Hunger Free Oklahoma’s president and CEO.

“We do believe in stronger local food systems, and we’d love to see kids eat more fresh vegetables,” Bernard said. “This was a way to kind of include all those things to make it more economically viable for schools, build the local food system (and) create healthier options.”

Investing in child nutrition is “imperative” to improve health and academic outcomes in the state, Garvin said. But she said she’s unsure what action the Legislature will ultimately take.

Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, attends a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting at the state Capitol on Oct. 3. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice) The head of the Senate Appropriations Committee said he’s open to the idea of spending more state dollars to expand access to free and reduced-price meals in schools. Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, filed a bill to create a universal electronic form for families to apply for these discounts.

Thompson said there’s a “growing conversation” in the state Legislature to tackle food insecurity.

“Raising levels (of state support), especially in the current economic environment, does not discourage me at all,” he said.

But, Thompson said he doesn’t envision Oklahoma paying for free meals for all public school students, as some states have done. Nor does Sen. Adam Pugh, the lawmaker in charge of committees on education policy and funding.

Pugh, R-Edmond, said he and most members of the Senate Education Committee don’t support the state taking on the cost of expanding free meals in schools now that the federal program has expired.

Rather, he prefers to explore ways to “leverage local sources of food.”

“The votes were not there to move any of those bills last year because it was just footing the bill for the program that was going to end at the federal level,” Pugh said. “But I think there’s a lot of ways to still get a concept like that passed but do it in an Oklahoma way, do it responsibly, do it where it’s got a lower fiscal impact but has a higher nutritional and educational impact for the kid.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.
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