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Michigan lawmakers and industry leaders want to extend universal free meals in schools

United States Department of Agriculture

Schools have been able to provide free lunches to all students in Michigan due to COVID relief measures thanks to set of federal waivers currently provides free meals to all students regardless of income and gives flexibility in what food can be served.

But all twelve of the waivers are set to expire on June 30.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has introduced a bill with bipartisan support that would extend the waivers through September 30, 2023.

Jennifer Mattison is the president of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan and the Director of Student Nutrition in Dexter Schools. She says her organization fully supports the bill.

“It’s a welcome relief to us, the idea that we can extend it for another year. The supply chain issues that we are experiencing, our staff shortages that we, like the rest of the world, are experiencing, have presented significant challenges for us this year.”

She says doesn’t see those problems going away by June. Mattison added that the waivers have been crucial to getting food to kids around the state.

“We desperately, desperately need this bill to go through in order to be able to make sure that we can continue to care for the children of Michigan."

Mattison explained there are “very strict nutrition standards, which we are happy to keep in place as much as possible.”

Before the pandemic, schools had to meet those nutrition standards to be reimbursed. If not, they could not count the meal and would not get reimbursed for the time, effort, and supplies that went into feeding students. Mattison said they still try to meet those guidelines, but she can still feed kids and stay financially solvent when shortages make that impossible.

With supply issues, it has been a challenge to get compliant foods, even having to visit grocery stores to get bread for the day's meal. Mattison says her milk delivery service had milk, but not the delivery crates and they didn’t get that delivery in time. In addition, she says compliant foods are getting more expensive by 20% or more, and vendors are backing out of the industry.

Michigan’s Education Nutrition Director Diane Golzynski said much of the same. She believes once the waivers end, “we will have hungry kids" and “a hungry child cannot learn.”

Golzynski says there are families who’ve never known anything but universal free meals. If the waivers aren’t extended, lunch rooms will have to increase prices to students and she’s worried about the burden that places on Michigan families. She says differentiating between children who qualify for free or reduced meals and those who do not was socially and emotionally hard for kids and staff, and that universal free lunches has taken away the stigma.

Both Mattison and Golzynski said they think the free meals have helped kids learn.

Mattison says, “At the end of the day, it’s about making sure they are ready to learn, that they are fueled for learning. That no matter what their situation, what their background, that we are here for them.”

Copyright 2022 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Katheryne Friske