In a move that could save parents hundreds of dollars a year, a Michigan Senate bill currently under consideration has the potential to make free school breakfasts and lunches a permanent investment in public schools.
SB 500, sponsored by state Sen. Dana Polehanki (D-Livonia), would make permanent an item of the state’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget that guaranteed a year of free meals at school for Michigan’s students.
Polehanki said that the presence of easily accessible, healthy meals at school makes for better learners in the classroom.
“As a public school teacher, I have stood in thousands of lunch lines with students and I’ve witnessed firsthand how stigmatizing it can be for those whose lunch tabs haven’t been paid,” Polehanki said. “I have also witnessed how distracting it can be for students who complain of hunger while they’re trying to learn.”
The $160 million allocated in the state’s education omnibus budget to universal school meals would be supplemented in future years by federal funding based on the number of students utilizing the service. Bernadette Downey, associate government relations and advocacy director from Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry of Michigan testified in support of the bill at a Tuesday hearing in the Education Committee.
Downey said that the state’s investment would lead to an increase of students eating school lunches, and in turn, allow for an influx of federal support to keep the program going.
“This summer, the Legislature made the wise investment through the FY ‘24 budgets to fund healthy school meals for all for the school year,” Downey said. “As a result, we estimate more than 18 million additional meals will be served in schools, leading to a projected increase of $45 million dollars in federal funds for school meals programs.”
On the Senate Education Committee, which has yet to take a vote on the bill, SB 500 has bipartisan support. Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) said it was “worth it” for schools to serve free meals to students whose parents could afford to pay, in hopes of destigmatizing free lunch and easing financial strain on middle-income families.
“I supported this because we’re always talking about ways to return money to our hard working families in this day of very high inflation,” Damoose said. “This is a direct help to those families.”
Polehanki estimated that removing the cost of school lunch from grocery and family budgets would save parents around $850 a year.
While some critics have argued that higher-income families should pay up for hot lunch, Mary Darnton, president of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan, testified that putting all students on equal footing when it comes to food can help erase uncomfortable divides between kids.
“I see students who don’t come into the lunchroom or who have to choose not to participate and get lunch and their whole mood is affected the entire day,” Darnton said. “Young children act out more behaviorally when they are hungry. Older children close in on themselves, teenagers especially.”
The simple act of sitting down to eat lunch with a group of friends instead of having to skip the cafeteria because of the stigma surrounding free or reduced lunch can be a defining factor for student success, Darnton said.
“The research is clear,” Darton said. “School meals help to boost test scores, improve attendance and behavior and help support the social-emotional and physical development of our students.”
Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton), whose mother is a food service worker at Flat Rock Community High School, said that hearing from her how students relied on free meals during the pandemic bolstered his support for making the free lunch program permanent.
“She saw the height of the pandemic and the chaos that that brought,” Camilleri said. “She was on the front lines, serving food to our kids and packing meals for them to take home and pick up in the parking lot.”
Darnton said that Michigan can look to the success of school food programming during the pandemic as an example of the importance of continuing to offer free meals in the future.
“During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, school meals provided a food security safety net,” Darnton said. “And when the national waivers that allowed for no-cost meals were not renewed in June 2022, we saw children falling through the cracks.”
The bill also received supportive testimony from the American Heart Association and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). Representatives of non-public school organizations testified on the possibility of expanding the program to private school lunches, but Polehanki said that the current language of the bill and the state constitution disallow the use of general fund dollars for non-public schools.
MDE Deputy Superintendent Diane Golzynski said that making the program a mainstay of state education policy would stop “pitting families and schools against each other, leaving children in the middle.”
“One of the beautiful things about meals at school is that when all students have access to the same meals as their peers, everyone is equal,” Golzynski said. “With universal free meals, no student is offered inferior products or menus based on their family income.”
With child poverty rates on the rise nationally, according to the U.S. Census, Darnton said it’s never been more important for schools to step in and offer solutions.
“Approximately one in eight children in Michigan could face food insecurity this year,” Downey said. “And no cost for [school] meals will play a critical role in reducing that likelihood.”
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