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Pathways Forward: School Meals Legislation in Tennessee

The Tennessee General Assembly’s 2024 legislative session officially ended on Thursday, April 25. While the session was not as successful for School Meals for All policy as we had hoped, the Tennessee Justice Center and partners created a solid foothold for future policy wins. This legislative session illuminated opportunities for future progress, and we will be ready in 2025 to advocate for expanding school meals. 


School Meals for All Bills Filed this Session 

Ten school meals for all bills were filed in Tennessee during the 113th Tennessee General Assembly, among the highest number in the country filed in 2024. Two of these bills were filed by Republicans and eight by Democrats.  HB0255/SB028 sponsored by Representative Raper and Senator Lowe had twenty-two co-prime sponsors and garnered the most bipartisan support throughout the session with twelve Republicans and nine Democrats as co-prime sponsors. 

Why School Meals for All?  

Hungry kids are in every county in Tennessee, which means 1 in 8 kids can’t get enough food on a regular basis.  Some Tennessee students from low-income families who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals and are unable to afford school meal fees and therefore don’t eat. Up to 1 in 5 hungry kids don’t qualify for financial help with school meals because their family’s income is above 185% of the poverty line. 

Tennessee schools successfully served school meals to all kids from 2020-2022 and many kids experienced the benefits of school meals. But now that full federal funding is gone, it’s time for Tennessee to take charge of our children’s future. 

Children can’t learn on an empty stomach and school meals are just as important to students’ academic success as textbooks and buses. Free school meals for all students leads to many benefits for students, their families, and communities across Tennessee.  

Barriers During the 113th Tennessee General Assembly 

The education committees had a crowded field this year, with approximately 300 education bills filed and interest groups vying for priority. Governor Lee’s school vouchers legislation loomed over other education priorities throughout the legislative session and was ultimately unsuccessful. Nonetheless, pressure to pass school vouchers impacted the viability of other bills with significant state dollar investments like school meals for all students.  

School meals legislation also contended with state budget constraints due to lower state revenue and the end of COVID-19 related federal funding. Tennessee began 2024 with a budget shortfall, which forced lawmakers and advocates to pare down proposed policies and pass fewer education bills with state funding needs. Anti-hunger advocates also faced an additional uphill battle, as HB0255/SB0208 had a bloated fiscal note of $714 million dollars. This estimate exceeds all budget actuals for states that have implemented this policy, many of which have significantly higher student populations than Tennessee.  

HB1860 had a more realistic fiscal note at $272 million, although this still exceeds our estimates based on budgets actuals from other states. Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Tennessee is working with partners to better understand the true cost of this policy priority moving forward.  

What happens next? 

Childhood hunger is a bipartisan issue. While this legislation didn't pass in 2024, it succeeded in raising awareness about a solution to the problem of child food insecurity. Communities came together to advocate for the well-being of their children, highlighting the importance of nutrition in academic success. This grassroots mobilization lays the groundwork for future initiatives and demonstrates the power of our collective action. 

Just like books and buses, school meals should be offered at no cost to students’ families. Alongside our statewide partners, the Tennessee Justice Center is committed to expanding school meals through state policy change. We will come back in 2025 ready to advocate for Tennessee kids. 

Expansive systems-level change often takes time and advocate collaboration. Moving forward, we encourage any individuals or organizations interested in joining Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Tennessee to walk alongside us in this work. 


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