The state is stepping in to pay for school meals for students who otherwise would not qualify for free or reduced price lunch. A handful of other states have adopted a similar policy. (Shutterstock)
  • Michigan public schools will be able to offer free meals to all public school students this year 
  • Advocates say this will help ensure every student is ready to learn and will eliminate the stigma for low-income students 
  • Parents should still fill out school forms on family income that may make them eligible for other free services

Lori Adkins is hearing that school districts in Oakland County are expecting to significantly increase how many school meals they serve a day. 

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

Why? The child nutrition consultant for Oakland Schools says the state’s new plan to provide free school meals for all public school students will reduce childhood hunger, help families’ finances and eliminate student meal debt. 

A year after the federal government ended a pandemic-era program that offered free school meals for all students, regardless of income, Michigan lawmakers approved up to $160 million in state funds for a free breakfast and lunch for all public school students, pre-K through high school. Michigan is one of seven states to do so. 

Related:

Lawmakers approved an additional $25 million to ensure schools can start the effort at the beginning of the school year, rather than when the state’s fiscal year starts in October.

Districts are not required to participate in the program but Mary Darnton, food service director for both Jenison Public Schools and Hudsonville Public Schools told Bridge Michigan she anticipates most districts will participate and that child nutrition leaders are ready. 

“I think it’s very doable, especially when we keep our focus on our students; their ability to learn and be fed, and focusing on our end customer, which is the student getting fed a healthy meal, removing barriers to the participation, (and) helping families save money,” said Darnton, who is also the president of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan. 

Adkins, of Oakland Schools, said some of the county’s 28 districts are planning for a 20-percent increase or more in the number of school meals served each day.

She anticipates participation will depend on how easy it is for students to get their meals. For example, she said participation tends to be higher when elementary schools serve breakfast in the classroom or high schools serve breakfasts at kiosks at entrances rather than just in the cafeteria. 

“We just feel like we never want to see a child go hungry or feel shame during mealtime,” Adkins said. “So that’s why this ‘school meals for all’ program in Michigan is so important.” 

Here is what else to know: 

Who is eligible for free school meals? 

Free breakfasts and lunches are available to students in the Great Start Readiness Program, the state’s pre-K program for four-year-olds, all the way through 12th grade. Also eligible: students up to age 26 who are in special education programs.

This past school year, after the federal money for universal free meals ended, a family of four had to make $36,075 or less a year for their children to qualify for free meals. The same family would need to make no more than about $51,300 annually to qualify for reduced price meals.  No such restriction will be in place this year, at least in Michigan. 

“You need to have textbooks, you need to have (a) laptop, and you also need to be fed in order to learn,” Adkins said. “So a school district that opts out, they’d have to have a pretty good reason and be able to explain that to their community.” 

Are there limits on the number of meals a student can have? 

Diane Golzynski, deputy superintendent for finance and operations at the Michigan Department of Education, said the program pays for one breakfast and one lunch per day per student.

Is there a form to fill out to get free meals? 

No, but schools will still ask parents to fill out a household income information form. Schools use this information to ensure lower-income families are eligible for other types of funding.  

For example, a local district might cover the costs of joining a sport if a student’s family income would typically qualify them for free or reduced price school meals. Students may also qualify for free or reduced price Advanced Placement testing, college application fees and home internet. 

What about parents who owe money for unpaid meals?

The new program requires that participating school districts forgive student meal debt by February 1, 2024.

There is $2.5 million of state money set aside for forgiving this debt. Districts will apply for the funding with the Michigan Department of Education. 

This past school year, without universal funding, meal debt rose above $19 million across the U.S., with the Midwest reporting among the highest rates.  

Advocates say they also hope the free-meals-for-all program will reduce the shame that can accompany school meals. 

State Rep. Regina Weiss, D-Oak Park, said the program will “help remove some of the stigma that has been historically associated with school meals and the way that this free school meal program has been administered.”

“Because now it’s for everybody, everybody’s getting the same thing.” 

Alexis Bylander, senior child nutrition policy analyst at Food Research & Action Center, which conducts research on hunger and advocates for policies to reduce hunger, said the current income thresholds mean some families don’t qualify for free meals but “desperately need them.”

“So much of this is about the stigma that happens in the cafeteria when you’re lumping kids into three different groups for the same meals,” she said. “Everybody needs to be able to access those meals for free so that the cafeteria is a welcoming place where it’s not stigmatizing to participate in school meals.” 

Is the Michigan funding permanent? 

As of now, funding is for the 2023-2024 school year but advocates hope the program will continue in future school years.

Lawmakers have deposited $245 million in a school meal reserve fund to help pay for future expenses in the program. 

Weiss said the cost is based on previous participation rates but there will likely still be parents who choose to pack a lunch for their children. 

“We wanted to make sure that there’s enough money in there to cover for our kids but we know that it might not necessarily cost exactly what we think it’s going to cost.”

Darnton, of the state child nutrition organization, said the next step is ensuring that free school meals become permanent. In the absence of Congress choosing to fund universal school meals, she said “states are picking up the mantle” to push for universal school meals.

Jon Bumstead, R-North Muskegon, told Bridge he is not sure the decision to fund school meals for all students makes sense when some families could pay for these meals. Still, he said, no child should worry about where their next meal is going to come from.

“I just think we have to pay attention and make sure that the kids who do need the program do get three square meals a day,” he said. 

But Weiss argues that more affluent families access public education, too. 

“So it doesn’t matter if you are in poverty, or if you’re not in poverty, you have access to free, quality, public education in our state. And I think that when you’re at school, there should be an expectation that students’ — all students’ — needs are being met while they’re in the school building. And part of that is making sure that kids are fed.”

Will the program help student learning? 

Bernadette Downey, associate director focused on government relations and advocacy at Share Our Strength, a national group advocating for policies to end hunger and poverty, said researchers are still studying the outcomes of states that extended no-cost meals to all students during the last school year.

“But one of the things that we do know is that there are a lot of kids who miss the opportunity to receive meals at a free or reduced-price cost because of a multitude of barriers.” 

She said factors like students’ families missing sign-up deadlines or not understanding forms can contribute to people who would be eligible for free or reduced price meals not actually receiving them. And she said even a reduced priced meal might cost too much for some families. 

Collin McDonough, Michigan government relations director for the American Heart Association, helped advocate for universal school meal funding. He said nutrition is “one of the biggest factors” for heart health and it’s important to address not only if students have enough food but if they have nutritious food

Advocates and researchers say expanding school meals will lead to better outcomes as a whole for students, though that finding is not universal

“Kids who are not hungry, and that can span any income level, are better able to focus, their behavior is better, their attendance is better, they get to school on time, they visit the nurse less often,” said Bylander, of the Food Research & Action Center. 

Are other states providing universal school meals? 

Yes, Michigan is one of seven states that have approved universal school meal programming, Bylander said. And school meals are a “huge part of national anti-hunger efforts.” 

California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont all have universal school meal programs and an eighth state, Massachusetts, is poised to approve a similar program. The Massachusetts Legislature approved universal school meal funding on Monday and the governor is expected to sign it into law. 

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