Michigan's free school meals yield high returns for student health and academic success

Michigan has become one of eight states to make free school meals available to all, creating notable benefits for students' health.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, to get a free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch at school, Michigan students' families had to complete applications proving their low income. But Michigan has since become one of eight states to make free school meals available to all, creating notable benefits for students' health.

Michigan and other states have built upon pandemic-era federal application waivers that allowed students to receive free meals at school, no matter their families' income. Approximately 90% of U.S. school districts participated in the program during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years — and millions of children benefited. 
These free universal school meals not only improved children’s diets and addressed hunger but also supported obesity prevention, improved overall student health, and boosted academic achievement. Despite those benefits, federal waivers were discontinued at the end of the 2022 school year.
Having seen the gains students made under the program, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont passed legislation to continue serving free meals to students. Nearly 30 other states are considering similar plans.
"We don't wait for a kid to pay to get on the school bus. We don’t ask, ‘Well, how much does your mom and dad make?’ It’s not like football players have to pay for their helmets. But for some reason, food is one of those things that we have to see if a kid deserves it," says Dan Gorman, food service director for Montague Area Public Schools in the Muskegon area. "To eliminate that really is a game-changer for the students and the educational environment."
Dan Gorman. 
Funded during the 2023-2024 school year, Michigan’s program supplements the federal program that provides free and reduced-price meals to low-income students so all students can partake of healthy meals at no cost. Many Michigan educators hope funding will be extended on a permanent basis.
 Diane Golzynski.
"The only thing kids should be hungry for when they're at school is hungry to learn," says Diane Golzynski, deputy superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). "We know that when kids are not hungry, they are more likely to attend school. They have higher test scores. They have higher graduation rates. And they have higher lifelong earnings."
The MDE Office of School Nutrition reported that, in one month alone — October 2023 — 3,459 Michigan school meal sites served 10,064,686 free breakfasts to 474,431 students and 17,659,809 free lunches to 853,639 students.
"Our programs serve two purposes: to assure that no child is hungry at school, and to teach every child what a healthy, lifelong diet looks like," Golzynski says. "They get served food that is healthy and tastes great. Every meal has a fruit and vegetable, low-fat milk, and lean protein. They can see how it all comes together."
Meals in Montague eliminate stigma and build success

In Montague Area Public Schools, 34.3% of students are eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price meal program. The Michigan meals program means those students get fed without stigma or embarrassment.
"When you talk about the hierarchy of needs, food is the first part of that hierarchy. The reality is there's families who might be in need. And then there are social stigmas, especially in a district that might not have a high free or reduced lunch amount," Gorman says. "Many students who might qualify for a free meal won't take it because of the stigma, the embarrassment. When you offer it to everyone, it really levels the playing field. It allows more kids to get the nutrition they need to be successful."
Gorman says he used to spend one-third of his time determining which kids deserved a free meal. Now, he has more time to focus on providing better nutrition to all students.
"We can serve better food," he says. "We're also putting a lot of our time and effort into helping students build relationships with food [and] the idea of food literacy, which can be school gardens or cafeteria and classroom activities."
Michigan school districts in high-poverty areas, classified as Community Eligibility Provision Districts, continue to receive federal funding for universal free school meals. For instance, 80% of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) families meet federal requirements for free or reduced-price school meals, so all DPSCD students have qualified for free meals for more than 15 years. 
Machion Jackson.
DPSCD Deputy Superintendent Machion Jackson underscores that free access to healthy meals is even more important since students have such easy access to unhealthy fast foods and junk food.
"We are in such a mobile society now, where everyone's on the run and they want things quickly," Jackson says. "There's a possibility that students will not be provided with healthy breakfasts or even healthy lunch. ... By providing free meals, we ensure that students have the nutrition that they need to fuel their bodies, so that they can be attentive in the classrooms, learn new information, and retain the information that is being taught to them."
Jackson notes that when all students are getting free meals, none of them feel the embarrassment of being singled out for a handout.
"We were so excited when we heard that our status would be widespread all throughout Michigan, that there's been an uptick in the number of students who are eating statewide," she says. "That shows that the need is there, the demand is there. The students want the meals. Families depend on assistance and help more than ever before, as we're in this post-pandemic environment."

Forgiving lunch debt serves students and schools
Michigan’s free school breakfast and lunch program also eliminated school lunch debt – another factor that can create embarrassment in the lunch line. 
"If you have lunch debt, you're not going to be as apt to go to the breakfast line or a lunch line and seek meals," Jackson says. "There's, quite frankly, embarrassment that goes along with having student lunch debt. Students don't want others to hear them being told by food providers that there's a debt on their account. Rather than deal with that, students do not eat."
According to Golzynski, some Michigan districts punished students who owed lunch debt by excluding them from activities like sports or graduation. In the 2022-2023 school year, when pandemic funding for free school meals ran out, she says unpaid meal numbers went "through the roof."
"Some districts had hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid school meals," Golzynski says. "What the legislature and the governor didn't want was to provide free meals and still have that debt sitting on the books. So they provided an additional line item to pay off that debt — a clean slate. We're going to make sure nobody owes money — and provide all meals for free so that families just didn't have to worry about it."
Lunchtime at Oehrli Elementary School in Montague, Mich. 
School meal debt is not only a hardship for families and an embarrassment to kids. In many cases, schools end up using money earmarked for educational expenses to instead pay meal debts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gorman remarks that the hidden costs of tracking debt and attempting to collect it strip schools of general fund dollars meant for teachers, textbooks, and educational software.
"That's another burden that the schools don't have to take on," he says.
However, the biggest win is kids getting the healthy foods they need to thrive at school and succeed in life. Golzynski says schools that had 100 students eating meals now have thousands, with the biggest increases seen in middle and high schools.
"It has been more popular than we ever imagined. We are truly investing in families and students," she says. "Kids don't have to say, ‘Oh, I've got enough money for one meal today, so I'm going to choose lunch.’ Now they can eat both. The only decision for them is whether or not they're hungry."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.

Dan Gorman/Montague Area Public Schools photos by Tommy Allen. All other photos courtesy of the subjects.
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