New bill would give all Tennessee students free meals

If the bill passes, students will have access to free breakfast and lunch.
FILE(Cyle Clark)
Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 10:10 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 8, 2023 at 7:35 AM CST
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) – Two Republican lawmakers proposed a new bill that would give students in every Tennessee school district the opportunity to have free meals.

This would include free breakfast and lunch meals.

“Optimal learning will not happen with a hungry child,” Rep. Kevin Raper, R-Cleveland, said.

Raper, a long-time educator of more than 30 years, said he’s witnessed firsthand how hunger impacts children’s abilities to pay attention in the classroom.

He said he also witnessed how stigmatizing free or reduced lunch was.

“I saw hungry kids at times and when we did, we did everything to help them,” Raper said. “I saw the stigmas going with free and reduced and attaching that to different kids, and they’re embarrassed about it so this way this bill would not.”

House Bill 255 would establish a school lunch and breakfast program that provides two free meals every day to every student in each district.

“Anybody that’s an educator will see the actual benefit of knowing that they have children that are going to eat breakfast and lunch every single day and not have to worry about the free and reduced stipulations,” Raper said.

The state would reimburse each school system after federal dollars are made available to the national school lunch program.

“We’re able to do more as we have more,” Sen. Adam Lowe, R-Calhoun, said.

Lowe sponsors the Senate version of the bill and said the state’s surplus is the reason why they wanted to put those funds back into taxpayers’ pockets, hopefully saving families hundreds of dollars.

“Nobody’s paid more in an inflated economy on taxes than multipurpose households, so this is just an opportunity just to try and identify,” Lowe said.

He said the bill is based on the idea of getting some of the state’s surplus back to communities and families.

“Low-income families tend to get relief through school lunches, working and middle class not so much,” Lowe said. “We require those children to go to schools. Most of them go to public school and then we require lunch bills on top of that, so it really was just a means to get some relief back to families.”

Both Republican lawmakers said they’re not sure the exact cost because they are waiting on the fiscal note review.

They said the bill, so far, shows bipartisanship. Some school districts like Metro Nashville Public Schools already have this concept in place where each student receives breakfast and lunch at no cost.

If this bill passes, the free meals would begin during the 2023-24 school year.