School meal programs play a critical role in ensuring children get enough food to eat during the school year and summer months. While a federal pandemic-era program gave local school districts broad new flexibility and funding to provide free meals to all students, Congress failed to renew this effective anti-hunger tool last June. In the absence of federal action, some states have taken the lead to create their own universal free meal programs. States Newsroom’s Adam Goldstein reports on these efforts and the benefits they provide to students.

Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, a professor of nutrition and leader of the Arizona State Food Policy and Environmental Research Group, said offering free school meals reduces the social stigma for low-income students, increasing participation and nutritional benefits for those who need it most.  Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and the Jean Mayer Professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, cited a Journal of the American Medical Association study which found school meals are among the most nutritious meals students eat anywhere. Other studies have shown that universal school meals produce positive overall effects on school attendance, and academic performance across grades. 

Rep. Kyle Green’s House Bill 282 would provide free breakfast and lunch for all public school students in Louisiana. 

Louisiana is capable of real tax reform
The tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee voted to cut taxes by $210 million next year by prematurely reducing the state’s temporary sales tax. House Bill 62 by Rep. Tony Bacala would prematurely reduce the state’s temporary sales tax – from 0.45% to 0.25% – depriving the state of revenue that funds public schools, hospitals and other services and hastening a fiscal “cliff” that looms in 2025. Advocate columnist James Gill looks back at the 2002 Stelly Plan, which was the last progressive tax reform to advance in Louisiana: 

The answer to the anomalies of Louisiana’s tax system were always glaringly obvious — abolish the sales taxes fraudulently advertised as temporary and raise income tax rates enough to bring in the moolah needed to balance the books. That is indeed what happened. Sweet reason then reigned for a few short years. Rationalizing the tax system meant fewer headaches when the time came for deciding how to allocate revenues, for sales taxes are notoriously volatile while income taxes are relatively predictable. Sales taxes, moreover, gobble up a greater share of disposable income if you haven’t got much of it. When voters approved the Stelly Plan, they struck a blow for fiscal sanity and fairness.

The campaign to rewrite child labor laws
One of the more surprising – and disturbing – political developments of 2023 has been the decision by several states to roll back laws that protect children from working long hours in dangerous conditions. The Washington Post’s Jacob Bogage and María Luisa Paúl finger the culprit: A Florida-based conservative advocacy group, backed by billionaires, that has deployed 115 lobbyists across 22 states to push policies that would hurt the poor and vulnerable. 

On the surface, the (Foundation for Government Accountability) frames its child worker bills as part of a larger debate surrounding parental rights, including in education and child care. But the state-by-state campaigns, the group’s leader said, help the FGA create openings to deconstruct larger government regulations. … “The reason these rather unpopular policies succeed is because they come in under the radar screen,” said David Campbell, professor of American democracy at the University of Notre Dame. “Typically, these things get passed because they are often introduced in a very quiet way or by groups inching little by little through grass-roots efforts.”

Reality check: Louisiana is one of the 22 states with a lobbyist for the Opportunity Solutions Project. But so far, the state has not seen any copycat bills seeking to roll back child labor laws. 

Controversy over slave burial sites
Pressure to develop new land for industrial facilities is resurfacing Louisiana’s painful history of slavery along the Mississippi River. That’s because several burial sites known or suspected of having formerly enslaved people have been found along the state’s petrochemical corridor over the past decade. The Advocate’s David J. Mitchell reports on these discoveries and the distrust between those who want to protect the sites and industrial facilities that own the land. 

The Formosa Plastics complex in St. James Parish, which remains tied up in legal and regulatory challenges, drew similar criticism after advocates learned more about the company’s research into cemeteries on that property. A small part of the site has been marked off, though the company says it isn’t sure who is buried there. … Citing the ongoing issue in the river region he represents, Congressman Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, asked the U.S. departments of Environmental Protection and Interior last month to require industries seeking permits certify that sites don’t have the graves of the formerly enslaved.

While petrochemical facilities replaced plantations along the Mississippi River, Black Louisianans still suffered. A 2022 study from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic found that majority-Black communities in Louisiana are exposed to far greater amounts of harmful pollution than their white counterparts.

Didja Know? Podcast
In this week’s episode, LBP executive director Jan Moller and budget and tax policy analyst Paul Braun discuss how lawmakers are tackling tax and budget bills as spending debates heat up at the Capitol. Click here to listen. 

Number of the Day
$210 million – Amount of revenue that would be lost under a bill by Rep. Tony Bacala to reduce the state’s temporary sales tax – from 0.45% to 0.25%  – for the last year before it expires. There is no plan to make up this revenue, which supports public schools, hospitals, roads and bridges and other vital services in the state. (Source: Legislative Fiscal Office)