LANSING, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – While Michigan secured state supplied meals at no cost to families for the 2023-24 school year, it has its sights set on making it a permanent fixture with legislation.

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee considered testimony regarding Senate Bill 500, which would create a recurring program to enable schools to provide students beginning before Kindergarten and through 12th grade to have access to school meals at no cost to families. 

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“Aside from the overall health benefits, this policy would help mitigate the development of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes,” said Collin McDonough, Government Relations Director for the American Heart Association of Michigan. 

According to the American Heart Association, if the bill was passed it would accomplish the following: 

  • Provide for a permanent program by updating the state school code
  • Maximize federal revenue by directing eligible schools to adopt the community eligibility provision in a way that would draw down the most federal funds
  • Increase school meal participation by more than 18 million meals served, resulting in a projected drawdown of an additional $45 million in federal funds for school meals programs
  • Save the average Michigan family $850 per student per year 
  • Encourage schools to offer meals that meet students’ religious and other dietary preferences while accommodating disabilities and other medical needs

Eight other states currently provide Healthy School Meals for All by funding no-cost meal service to all students. 

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President of School Nutrition Association of Michigan, Mary Darnton, shared how she and other Food Service Directors are trying to address food preferences for all, even encouraging students to speak with their food service provider with ideas for new menu items.

“It’s really a partnership between the parents, the students, and the food service department, it’s a three way street,” Darnton siad, “the child has as much of a voice as the parent does, so we’re there to support.” 

Dr. Diane Golzynski, Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations of the Michigan Department of Education also supported the bill. 

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“It is my pleasure to provide this testimony in support of Senate Bill 500, to assure that our public school children have access to breakfast and lunch at no cost – to them and their families – beyond this current fiscal year,” she said, “Providing meals in the same way that we do books and transportation provides equity for all students.” 

Senator Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) explained to constituents why everyone should be in favor of the bill. 

“Your support should really be dependent on your tolerance for a hungry child,” she said during the committee meeting. 

Brian Broderick, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools and Paul Stankewitz of the Michigan Catholic Conference testified with a similar message, asking the committee to consider extending the free meals to those not attending public schools. 

“We believe there is a glaring problem with the legislation that has been introduced, mainly the exclusion of students who attend non-public schools,” Broderick said. “There are more than 500 non-public schools in the state serving our communities.” 

He explained how the singling out of public schools in the provision could provide inequity among students. 

“This legislation extends meal provisions to all students in public schools regardless of their family income, it would not however do the same for children who attend non-public schools even though their school participates in the federal meal program,” Broderick said. “This creates a situation where children from the same community, and sometimes from the same family could be treated differently simply because they attend different schools.” 

Senator John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) shared the sentiment that not everyone who doesn’t go to public schools are wealthy. 

“I agree with what Sen. McDonald Rivet said that it would be really nice if we could find a way to make this work, it does not need to be a hostile thing,”  Sen. Damoose said adding he would support the bill either way, “If there was some discussion we could have, I don’t see the harm in feeding our kids, no matter where they go to school.” 

Chair Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) responded that the discussion of using additional general fund dollars to help accomplish this is a decision for the appropriations committee, completely separate from the education committee. 

“My concern is that I don’t want to see a delay with this bill, I would like this bill to pass,” she said. “Any future discussions about what these gentlemen have proposed be taken up separately because it would delay this bill that needs to happen.”

The committee did not vote whether to pass the bill out of committee or offer an amendment.