LANSING, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – Several educators, nutritionists, and members of advocacy groups, including the American Heart Association, spoke before the Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid and Education to discuss the merits of reinstituting the Healthy School Meals for All Program. 

Dr. Diane Golzynski, Interim Deputy Superintendent, Finance and Operations at the Michigan Department of Education was the first speaker and emphasized the importance of supporting Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s budget which would allocate $160 million to ensure that all students in the state could receive access to free breakfast and lunch. 

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“Providing meals in the same way we provide books and transportation provides equity for all students, reduces hunger, creates goodwill with families and communities, enables all students to be prepared for learning, and provides much needed income flexibility for families,” Dr. Golzynski said. 

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, the federal government provided funding to the states to provide school meals for students through the Healthy School Meals for All program.  That funding ceased this school year, and so far only five states have picked up the tab on providing those meals for free to students again. 

However, since the funding ended, statistics have shown since the end of the USDA waiver, the number of students eating at school has suffered a significant decline.  

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“This year on average over 52,000 fewer children are eating breakfast everyday, and over 73,000 fewer children are eating lunch at school everyday than they did when meals were free,” Dr. Golzynski said. 

A panel representing the Oakland School District also testified in favor of the budget and using a supplemental bill to decrease the time to implement a state version of the Healthy School Meals for All program. Vice President of Oakland School Board of Education, Theresa Rich, shared how she personally was affected by the stigma of being on free and reduced lunch.  

“I dreaded lunch time,” she said, “I had special colored tickets for lunch, I had the pink tickets, and all the other kids had the yellow tickets, and as lunch time would draw near I would get a pit in my stomach.”  

She recalled how she would be sent to the back of the line with her pink tickets, which was different from the other students’ lunch tickets. 

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“Because of course they wanted to make sure the yellow ticket kids got to take advantage of whatever the good meal was that day and if the pink ticket kids got whatever was left, who cared, it was free for them anyway,” Rich said. 

The American Heart Association, represented by the Michigan Government Relations Director, Collin McDonough, shared some additional statistics and support for making Michigan the seventh state to adopt a Healthy School Meals for All program. 

“This program would provide no cost breakfast and lunch to all Michigan public school students,” McDonough said, “It’s estimated to impact 1.4 million students and serve over 18 million meals.”  

Additionally, the program would help children mitigate and help prevent various illnesses, and by starting healthier trends at a younger age. 

“Currently, ⅓ of children are not only at an unhealthy weight but are also at an increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes,”  McDonough said, “This means that youth now have health conditions that were previously only associated with adults.” 

Subcommittee Chair and Representative Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park) inquired about how the program would accommodate students with specific dietary needs including food allergies, gluten free, plant based diets, or students eating kosher or halal diets. 

“The federal program requires that we meet students’ individual needs if they have a medical necessity, so if we have a note from a doctor that says that this child is allergic to these items then we must provide a meal at no additional cost to that family that meets their nutritional requirements,” Dr. Golzynski said, “now, when it comes to family choice, plant based or religious reasons, there is not a requirement but it is strongly recommended and what we see is that the districts do it because it is the right thing to do, especially if they have a large population that all have that same type of meal program.” 

Representative Matt Koleszar (D- Plymouth) asked whether the speakers would also support having the program in a supplemental bill as opposed to just in the FY 24 budget. 

“100% because school starts in August,” Dr. Golzynski said, “And waiting until October 1 means that we continue to miss kids.”

Some of the subcommittee members voiced concerns regarding food waste for students who are part of the program, but dietician and Senior Program Manager at No Kid Hungry Michigan, Mindy Grant offered a possible solution. 

“When breakfast is moved into the classroom it really does completely mitigate that because kids are focused, they are paying attention, and they are eating, as opposed to trying to eat as quick as they can to get out for recess or the next class in time because if they come just a couple of minutes late they may not have time to eat,” 

She also suggested that  at lunch time having more lunch options available is something that schools are working to increase so that students receiving the food can have a greater chance of choosing something they want to eat as opposed to something that they have to eat. 

The other states that have already passed budgets to reinstate the free meal programs include California, Colorado, Maine, Vermont, Nevada, and Massachusetts according to McDonough.  Other states with ongoing Healthy School Meals For All campaigns are Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota, and other states outside of the Midwest.