By BRANDY MUZ
Capital News Service
LANSING – A new program is offering free breakfast and lunch to all public school students in participating districts, regardless of family income.
Diane Golzynski, the deputy superintendent of the Department of Education, said the program, offered this academic year, hasn’t had any big drawbacks yet, adding that parent and school feedback have been positive.
“We hope to know more a month or so down the road when we can really see benefits emerging,” she said.
Golzynski said districts are still signing up for the program, and there is no official count yet of participants.
“If anything, our biggest challenge will be getting students enough time to eat the meals within an already packed school day,” Golzynski said.
Michigan Education Association President Chandra Madafferi said school workers are already reporting improvements.
“A lot of administrators and educators said that student participation and scores have increased, obviously with full bellies, and a lot of negative behavior has decreased,” she said.
The MEA is the state’s largest union of school staff.
Madafferi said she hasn’t seen any problems or drawbacks.
“It’s something that people can see and feel. Students know, families know, schools know. It’s something that impacts them immediately in their everyday life,” she said.
The state is putting $160 million into the initiative this year.
“Offering free breakfasts and lunches to all students removes the stigma from students who may receive free lunch,” East Lansing Superintendent Dori Leyko said. “Everyone has access to daily breakfast and lunch at no cost to families.”
The extra state funding has benefited students across the district, Leyko said.
But this isn’t the first time free meals have been available in Michigan.
Leyko said the state gave similar aid during the pandemic. “Free lunches were offered during COVID, so we’ve had the opportunity to offer free meals to students previously. But then that program was discontinued at the federal level.”
“They have healthy food choices and should not be sitting in a classroom hungry, making it more difficult to learn,” Leyko said.
Evan Robertson, the food service director of Holt Public Schools, said the biggest problem is the volume of meals served. “We have seen increased numbers across the board. They actually keep increasing every day.”
“It’s definitely been a little bit more of a challenge having to prepare more meals.” Robertson said. “Some of our older buildings have smaller kitchen spaces, but I give a lot of credit to my team because they’ve done a really great job working through it.”
Robertson said that students with dietary restrictions add to the higher number of school meals. The district works closely with the parents to ensure that those needs are met.
The state budget encourages schools to offer meals that meet students’ dietary requirements and restrictions, including religion-related and allergy-related ones.
Leyko said the extra state funding won’t last forever, “For now it is temporary and listed as ‘one time’ in the budget. However, there are advocacy groups working to codify the program and make it permanent.”
Robertson said he hopes it stays in effect.
“We’re one of the most advanced countries in the world. We should just have it. It shouldn’t even be a question.”