Advocates want to extend free school meals for all

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Capital News Service

LANSING — The Michigan Parent Teacher Association and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reinstate an expanded free school breakfast and lunch program for the 2022-23 school year.

Many students across the country are no longer eligible for free school meals after Congress failed to continue funding for the previous pandemic-era program that let students eat free regardless of family income.

Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said, “Right now, 90% of schools across our country are relying on child nutrition waivers to feed their students. 

“We must extend these waivers so our children have the nutrition they need to learn,” she said in a Facebook post.

The state PTA’s federal legislative chair, Carin Meyer, said, “This is so important because even before the COVID-19 health crisis, paying for school meals was a struggle for families that perhaps received some assistance, but not enough. It still causes families financial strain

“This also impacts school districts, because unpaid school meals must come out of their budgets, meaning less money towards other important programs,” Meyer said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 728,205 students in the state were eligible for free or reduced price lunches in the 2018-19 school year.

The eligibility requirement, according to the Department of Education, is based on family household size and annual income. 

Alan Shannon, the Midwest regional public affairs director of the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, said his agency is disappointed that it won’t have resources to assist summer feeding programs and student meals.

“Schools have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to ensure the children in their communities continue to have healthy, nutritious meals to eat,” Shannon said. “The (Biden) administration will continue to do everything we can to support leaders running these programs during this difficult time.”

Tom Freitas, the food and nutrition services director at Traverse City Area Public Schools, said families can apply for free and reduced price meals and may qualify based on their income.

“With the current high inflation costs for food and supplies, we are hopeful that the U.S. Congress or the Michigan Legislature will still decide to do something to allow us to go back to feeding all children free,” Freitas said. “But, as of now, we will be back to pre-COVID feeding regulations.”

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