During the 2023-24 school year, Michigan students will be eligible for free  breakfast and lunch from their public schools.

During the 2023-24 school year, Michigan students will be eligible for free breakfast and lunch from their public schools.

Photo provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Public school students could all receive free meals this school year

By: Mary Beth Almond | Metro | Published July 21, 2023


METRO DETROIT — Michigan is well on its way to becoming the fifth state in the nation to provide free breakfast and lunch to all public school students this school year.

Michigan’s House and Senate have approved the state’s fiscal year 2024 budget, which includes the allocation of $160 million to provide students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade with a free daily school breakfast and lunch for the 2023-24 school year.

The program will take immediate effect once the budget is signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Some states have either implemented universal free meals or are considering it following last June’s expiration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that allowed schools across the nation to offer free meals to students during the height of the pandemic.

Michigan’s new universal free meal program is only budgeted for this year, so to keep it going, state lawmakers would have to provide additional funding.

The Michigan initiative, called “Healthy School Meals for All,” aims to address food insecurity and improve student concentration and performance, state officials said.

“This is something we have wanted to see for the kids of Michigan for years,” said Diane Golzynski, the deputy superintendent for finance and operations for the Michigan Department of Education, which will oversee the program. “It’s going to be a huge win for kids all over the state to be able to go to school and know that there will be meals there if they want to eat them.”

Schools will have to opt in if they want to participate.

“The important message for families is, as long as your school opts in, then you will be able to have free breakfast and lunch at school,” Golzynski added.

Critics of the program say that free and reduced school meals were already offered to students who need them.

State Rep. Jaime Greene, R-Richmond, objected to the “expansion of the school meal program, a previously needs-based program that will instead provide free food even for kids from the wealthiest families when fully phased in,” according to a press release.

Advocates said the Healthy School Meals for All program will eliminate the stigma associated with receiving free and reduced lunch by providing reimbursement from the state for meals served to students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Previously, just over half of all students in the state qualified for free or reduced meals through federal programs, based on their family’s income or whether they qualified for SNAP benefits or Medicaid. In 2022, 53.3% of Michigan students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches.

“The federal reimbursement will come in first, and then (the MDE) will calculate the state reimbursement and provide those resources to the schools that opt in,” Golzynski explained.

The governor’s office said the program will help feed 1.4 million children across the state, which they estimate will save a family $850 over the year. A 2012 study of school lunch costs found that homemade lunches ranged in cost from around $1.55 to $2.12, and the NSLP lunches came in around  $2.15, without giving a dollar amount to the time involved in preparing either, according to schoolnutrition.org, which also found that parents tend to pack more sugary items.

Collin McDonough, director of Michigan government relations at the American Heart Association, said he applauds Whitmer, the state Legislature, the Michigan Department of Education and the AHA’s partner organizations No Kid Hungry Michigan, the School Nutrition Association of Michigan, and the Michigan School Meals Coalition for “their tireless work to take this program from an idea to reality.”

He said Healthy School Meals for All will be “transformational” for Michigan’s students and families.

“Not only will it help students learn — no one can focus on an empty stomach — it will help reduce the risk for chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes,” McDonough said in a statement.

Parent Jessica Kalef, of Rochester, has concerns about the quality of food served.

“While this sounds like a good idea, during COVID, when they were offered free lunch, there was a big difference in the quality of free food, versus paid. During the free period, we had gotten expired milk and yogurts … and upset stomachs, and were told stuff smelled or wasn’t cooked right,” said Kalef.

Food standards, she stressed, need to be upheld for the universal free food program as well.

“We, as parents, can’t be there for lunch, so it was upsetting that they were served this on several occasions,” Kalef added. “I would rather pay for the lunch to be sure it’s hot, fresh and not expired. However, I know that not all families can do that — so then who is responsible for upholding the standards and checking our kids safety?”

The meals offered through the state and federal programs, Golzynski said, are required to meet the dietary guidelines for Americans, which are set at the federal level.

“In order to get the federal reimbursement, those meals have to meet those nutritional values, but the beautiful part of having the additional state reimbursement is the schools will actually now have more money to spend on their food products, so they can get even higher quality food than what they had before,” she said.

Federal requirements include minimum servings for vegetables, fruits, milk, grains and meat or meat-alternate components. Schools must also adhere to requirements for calories, trans fat, saturated fat and sodium content.

While meal pattern requirements are set at the federal level, MDE officials said school menus are set at the local school or school district level.

“If there is a food allergy situation, where it is life or death, then the family gets a note from the child’s doctor, and the food service department has to make those accommodations; no matter what those accommodations are, they have to meet that child’s requirement based on what the doctor says,” said Golzynski. “In the case of dietary preference, like for religious reasons, or oftentimes a family eats vegetarian or vegan, then the food service department will do everything they can to meet those but they aren’t required to.”

Rochester Community Schools, along with many other local school districts, works with Chartwells for its food service.

“Universal free meals in Michigan offer a great opportunity for students to eat together in the cafeteria and hopefully make it easier for students and families to confidently check breakfast and lunch off their list. We’re excited to serve even more students in Rochester Community Schools this year, helping to fuel their busy days with favorite menu items and a variety of delicious new recipes,” Marsha Dziewit, the director of dining services for Rochester Community Schools, said in an email.

Rochester parent Cristina Poma feels the universal free meal program is “a move in the right direction” and said it can always be tweaked in the future to address concerns.

“I’m sure the quality of the food and whatever other gripes people may have can be adjusted as the program grows, but for the children of Michigan, I couldn’t be prouder to be in a state that is taking care of their kids in this manner,” she said.

MDE officials said parents or students can advocate for improved meal quality by first contacting their school’s food service director with concerns.

“Not every family will choose to eat the meals — and that’s always been the case, even during the pandemic, when the meals were free. … But we do expect there to be more children who choose to eat because they are free,” Golzynski stated.

She also encouraged parents to fill out income information, specifically a form called the “educational benefits form,” which will allow schools to continue to get federal funding for education.

“No matter what your income level is, return it, because it’s important to the school for additional education funding that they can get,” she said.

Those with additional questions or concerns can email MDE’s School Nutrition Programs at mde-schoolnutrition@michi gan.gov.