- Senate Bill 500 would require the Michigan Department of Education to operate a free school meal program
- Michigan public school students are receiving free school breakfast and lunch during the 2023-2024 school year
- Proponents want to make that program permanent
Michigan’s universal free school meal program may become permanent under a bipartisan bill discussed Tuesday.
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 500, which would make permanent a program that started this school year in which students regardless of income are offered free school meals.
During the 2023-2024 school year, Michigan public school students can receive one free breakfast and one free lunch during the school day. School districts are expected to maximize federal meal reimbursements for meals and the state is stepping in to pay for students who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for free or reduced price meals.
- What to know about Michigan’s universal free school meals program
- Michigan lawmakers OK universal lead screening for young children
- Michigan lawmakers consider requiring panic alarms in schools
Lawmakers approved $160 million to pay for the costs of the 2023-2024 program and an additional $25 million to ensure schools could start the program at the beginning of the year, rather than when the state’s fiscal year starts in October.
“Eliminating stigma and eliminating hunger have been described as game changing for students,” said bill sponsor Sen. Dayne Polehanki, D-Livonia. “So today we have an opportunity to make sure students are fed and ready (to) learn for years to come.”
Mary Darnton, the food service director for both Jenison Public Schools and Hudsonville Public Schools told Bridge Michigan that meal participation is up between 25 percent and 50 percent in every school building in her districts compared to last year.
“I think in general, most school meal operations are really busy right now serving even more kiddos,” said Darnton, who is also the president of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan.
She said schools have faced some staffing challenges and supply chain issues with produce orders but schools are working hard to address the challenges.
“This is something that for two and a half years, this existed in schools because of federal COVID waivers, and then it was gone,” Collin McDonough, Michigan government relations director for the American Heart Association, told Bridge. “That leaves everyone in limbo.”
Now, McDonough said lawmakers should codify the state program and capitalize on the momentum to ensure students in the future have the same access to universal school meals.
Sen. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs and co-sponsor, said during the committee meeting he supports the bill because if a child is hungry, they likely aren’t learning and all the other money the state invests in education might not be worth it.
Plus, he said, he wants to eliminate the stigma associated with school meals.
“If it means a couple rich kids get a few extra meals, that’s worth it to me,” he said. “But they’ve also paid into the system, so it’s helping everybody.”
Several people testified in support of the bill Tuesday but lawmakers were divided on if the legislature should consider allocating funds to allow private schools to participate in universal school meals.
Brian Broderick, executive director of Michigan Association of Non-public Schools and Paul Stankewitz of the Michigan Catholic Conference urged lawmakers to consider adding private schools to the policy.
Stankewitz said he understands funding the program for private schools would use the state’s general fund money rather than school aid funding.
Broderick told Bridge that as of spring 2023, 177 out of more than 500 nonpublic schools participate in the federal National School Lunch program. There are 55 schools who participate in both the breakfast and lunch programs, meaning they would be eligible for the universal meal program if the legislature expanded it to nonpublic schools.
“I think it’s important, the senators and everybody who testified indicated that making sure (all) schoolchildren are fed is a priority for the state,” Broderick said. “To back down and say ‘we can’t do it because we don’t have (the) general fund to do it’ doesn’t make sense to me.”
Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet, D-Bay City, said she “would hope we could figure out how to make this work.”
Damoose said he is supportive of providing universal meals to private schools if possible.
“The whole point of this bill is sort of to remove family income from the whole discussion,” he said.
Polehanki said it’s up to the appropriation committee to appropriate general fund dollars and that discussion should happen separately from discussions of passing Senate Bill 500.