by Julie Cassidy, Michigan Advance
August 1, 2023
Our kids need proper nutrition to stay healthy and go to school ready to learn. In the recently signed Fiscal Year 2024 state budget, our Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have provided funding to enable schools to permanently offer free breakfast and lunch to every student in grades pre-K through 12.
Now, it’s incumbent upon local school districts to accept the funds so children in all communities can reap the proven benefits.
This investment can help the state improve its long-standing record of failing students: the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2023 Kids Count Data Book ranks Michigan an embarrassing 42nd in the nation for education, with roughly three in four students not proficient in reading or math.
Currently, the federal government partially reimburses schools for each meal served. Schools recoup the remaining costs through student copays. Students from families with low incomes are eligible for reduced or completely eliminated copays. The new state funds are to cover all meal costs not reimbursed federally, enabling schools to provide breakfast and lunch to all kids at no cost to their families.
Food security is associated with better health, higher school attendance and greater academic achievement for kids. Proper nutrition is especially important during childhood, a critical period for brain development. Guaranteed access to school meals will help ensure that all Michigan kids, including the 282,320 who experience hunger, have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Research shows that expanding access to school meals enhances food security and diet quality, having a positive impact on kids’ physical and mental health. Additionally, school meals are linked to improved attendance, student attentiveness and behavior. All of this translates into success in school, including better math and reading test scores, grades and graduation rates.
Giving all students equitable access to food can also reduce bullying and foster a greater sense of community within schools. This is especially important as we strive to address a youth mental health crisis that worsened during the pandemic.
This investment could have the greatest impact in northern Michigan as well as urban areas in the lower part of the state. Despite their geographic and demographic differences, these communities have in common high rates of poverty and child food insecurity.
It could also mean reduced paperwork and the elimination of meal debt for many school districts, allowing staff to redirect their time and limited resources to more substantive matters in creating a robust learning environment.
Now is the perfect time to adopt universal free meals permanently. A federal waiver during the pandemic allowed all schools to provide free meals to all kids through June 2022. This gave schools an opportunity to discover best practices for effective long-term operations. Local districts should take advantage of the newly available state funds to build on this success.
The Michigan League for Public Policy and our partners are continuing to advocate for federal funding that will fully reimburse schools for serving healthy meals. The new state funding is an important support for our kids in the meantime, but it will be effective only if school districts choose to participate.
It is our hope that local school officials will embrace this investment in bright futures for our children and our state.
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