Schools adapt to free meals for all students

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Christopher Collins’ cafeteria lines look different this year, without handfuls of lunch money, account balances or cost waivers for students in need.

Instead, thanks to state funding passed last year, the Marquette Area Public Schools food services director can provide meals to all students at no cost to them.

“If a student is hungry for breakfast or lunch, they just walk up and we offer them a meal,” Collins said. “They’re just kids in line waiting to get their food – there’s no stigma attached.”

Marquette has just a few of the over 3,300 Michigan schools offering two free meals a day, according to new data from the Department of Education.

That’s more than twice the number of schools that offered free meals last year, before lawmakers approved up to $185 million to make free meals universal, as they were during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, families had to show financial need to access free and reduced-cost meals. A family of four, for example, had to make less than $36,075 a year to qualify for free meals or less than $51,300 for reduced-cost meals.

Advocates say under that system, some older students whose families qualified for free meals didn’t access them because of social stigmas.

The Education Department says that’s been eliminated by the new system. It points to data showing that the greatest increase in participation has been among middle and high school students.

“Many older students felt stigmatized if they were eligible for free meals and would not eat them,” said Diane Golzynski, the department’s deputy superintendent of finance and operations. “Now, all students eat for free, which ensures that all students have a positive experience getting a free breakfast and lunch.”

The increase in participation produces tangible benefits in the classroom, said Lori Adkins, Oakland County Schools child nutrition consultant.

“There’s clear research that kids can’t learn when they’re hungry,” Adkins said. “Hunger is a real barrier to learning, so these programs are fueling learning in the classroom and preparing them for academic success.”

The programs have also pushed districts to expand their options. 

Many districts that didn’t serve breakfast before are now doing so, as it’s a requirement to get state funding, said Adkins, who also is the president of the School Nutrition Association, a national professional organization.

Traverse City Area Public Schools is about to roll out a daily meatless option amid an influx of meal-seeking students there, said nutrition director Tom Freitas.

“It’s been a wonderful program and we hope it continues because we want to see the kids eating,” Freitas said. “We know all the kids are getting nutritious food during the day. It’s great to see.” 

The expansion creates challenges for districts.

Marquette has been struggling to fully staff its cafeterias as they’re serving more meals than ever, said Collins, the food services director. 

As a result, he’s redesigning lunch lines to lessen wait times without changing the menu, which he said students like.

Staffing issues aren’t uncommon, Adkins said.

Some districts have tried to ease staffing demands by putting breakfasts in the halls each morning and allowing students to eat during the first minutes of class time, as allowed by Michigan law, she said.

Inflation, specifically in food prices, has also hit districts hard as they serve more meals than before, Adkins said. 

Michigan is one of seven states to fund universal free meals. 

Adkins and other advocates visited Michigan’s congressional delegation in Washington earlier this month to lobby for similar funding nationwide.

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