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Governor to propose free school meals for all kids in upcoming budget plan

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All Michigan kids could get free breakfast and lunch at school, under a plan expected to be included in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s budget proposal later this week.

The plan would still have to be approved by state legislators to take effect. The outline of the plan was first reported by MLive and confirmed by Michigan Radio. A spokesperson for the governor said details won’t be available until the governor’s budget proposal is published on Wednesday.

If the plan makes it into the final budget, the governor’s office estimates an additional 1.4 million Michigan kids will have access to free lunch and breakfast at school. The cost of the plan is expected to be about $160 million dollars.

The federal government had expanded the free meal program in schools during the COVID-19 emergency to include all kids, not just those from families with lower incomes. That expansion expired last summer. But since then, policymakers in Michigan have been considering making free meals a permanent fixture in Michigan schools.

“The pandemic put a light on it,” said Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. “You realize how important that food is to families.”

And, she said, during the pandemic, many school leaders realized universal free meals reduced the amount of paperwork they had to process to identify which students were eligible for the meals.

“This could be beneficial to the kids, but also to the districts,” Smith said. “It will lessen some of the paperwork that they have to do.”

She said when MASB went on a listening tour this fall to hear directly from local school boards which issues were most important to them, free meals came up repeatedly.

“We heard a lot from our members that this would be a simpler way and better for all students,” Smith said.

A number of Michigan’s largest school districts already offer a universal free meal program to all students under a federal program called the “Community Eligibility Provision.” Under the program, schools or school districts where at least 40% of students are eligible for free meals can register to offer free meals for all students.

But expanding free meals to all Michigan schools will help districts, and help kids, Smith said.

The MASB, she said, will be pushing that message to state legislators as well, to try to get the proposal passed in the final budget this year.

Copyright 2023 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter for a new project at Michigan Radio that will look at improving economic opportunities for low-income children. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.