Over 1 million Michigan K-12 students are now receiving free school meals - TAI News
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Over 1 million K-12 students have received access to free breakfast and lunch through Michigan’s universal school meal program in its first year.

At the Michigan Board of Education’s Nov. 14 meeting, officials shared with the board the benefits the Michigan School Meals program has provided since classes resumed this fall.

Melanie Brummeler, interim assistant director of the Michigan Department of Education Office of Health and Nutrition Services, said that as of August, there were about 57,000 more students statewide eating a daily breakfast and 112,000 more students eating a daily lunch than the year prior.

Michigan schools were unable to provide universal free lunch in the 2022-2023 school year after the expiration of a waiver submitted by the MDE to the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic to remove federal income regulations for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. Congressional Democrats and school groups blamed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his opposition to extending the program.

Bringing back free school meals for all students was a priority for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this term. The Democratic-led Legislature appropriated $160 million this fiscal year for the creation of the Michigan School Meals program, which gives eligible schools the option to provide students with free school breakfast and lunch at no cost to their families.

“It took a pandemic to help some in the state to realize the value of free meals,” Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice said in a statement.

About one in eight American children lives in a household without consistent access to adequate food, according to the School Nutrition Association. The organization reported that it can be difficult for students who take the bus, arrive at school late, and have early classes to get school breakfast. Research shows that students who eat breakfast achieve 17.5% higher standardized test scores and attend 1.5 more days of school per year.

The Michigan School Meals program is available to K-12 public and intermediate school districts, tuition-based preschools, and adult special education programs that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. Eligible schools must follow USDA nutrition guidelines, provide an alternate, federally funded meal option for students, collect family income information, and cancel students’ school meal debt.

Private schools, preschools run by community-based organizations, and programs serving children under the age of three are not eligible to participate in the Michigan School Meals program.

Brummeler said that 100% of all eligible schools have opted into the program since it started this year.

Mary Darnton, food service director for the Hudsonville Public School District and Jenison Public Schools, joined Brummeler for the presentation at the November meeting. As someone who has served schoolchildren meals for the last 27 years, she said the universal lunch and breakfast program has been a “real dream come true” for herself as well as for students and their families.

“We are there to help nourish their bodies so that they can better learn, and removing those barriers to access, especially to price, really levels the playing field for my students,” Darnton said.

The Hudsonville and Jenison school districts, both located in Ottawa County, share the universal lunch and breakfast program. The two districts have a combined student population of between 13,000 and 14,000, but only about 26% are eligible for free and reduced meals based on income, which is why school leaders chose to join the program, Darnton said.

She shared data that shows that from September 2022 to September 2023, Jenison saw a 130% increase in students receiving breakfast and a 42% increase in students receiving lunch. In Hudsonville, those numbers were 272% and 48%, respectively.

The program is saving Michigan families hundreds of dollars a year, if not thousands, Darnton said.

“The money that we’re saving them from purchasing meals at school is staying in the household,” Darnton said. “It’s being used to purchase more groceries, it’s being used to pay the bills of the home and to do the things and live the lives that we need to live.”

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