Who could be against free meals for public school students?

As I discussed with Democratic State Senator Stephanie Chang in this week’s podcast, Michigan Democrats passed a measure providing free breakfasts and lunches to ALL public schools students.

No means testing. No lunch shaming.

The $160 million program is a piece of the estimated $20 billion dollar education budget, which is part of the overall budget that’s being worked-out between the state House and Senate worth around $80 billion.

There are many smart and innovative policies Democrats are putting in the education budget, including more per pupil funding, more funding for at-risk students, and more spending for special education.

But if there’s a part that should get support from both sides of the aisle, it’s passing a universal school meals for all kids in public schools.

Lily Altavena of The Detroit Free Press writes about how kids and families have been grappling with food costs ever since Congress allowed the federal pandemic-era free school meal program to expire last year, and how that especially hurt many parents when inflation was at its highest. School meals were free for all students during the pandemic.

Michigan Democrats, though, are busy at getting stuff done.

Altavena explains how a universal public school meal program works if it’s passed during the budget process, and how it’ll help alleviate student lunch debt:

“The amount of meals that students have eaten at school that families haven’t been able to pay for, it’s been incredible,” said Diane Golzynski, deputy superintendent for finance and operations at the Michigan Department of Education.

But a line item state lawmakers are considering in the upcoming fiscal year budget would send $160 million to public schools to once again make meals for free for every child, a proposal that has food service directors optimistic. State lawmakers have to agree to the funding in budget conferences after passing two separate bills in May, but both chambers have signaled support and the program has been championed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The proposed $160 million combined with federal funding that schools already receive for free and reduced lunch programs will mean EVERY student will be covered.

Altavena quotes Kimberly Sinclair, who directs a food service program in Novi, and she explains why it’s important all kids are covered under the program:

“When lunch was free for everyone, equity was in every cafeteria,” she said. “Our team does a really good job that people don’t know which students are free or reduced, but there’s still that stigma.”

On top of that, research shows just how free meal programs are getting positive results, such as improved academic performance, quality of diet, and food security.

And this program also helps most other families SO parents won’t have to either plan what they’re making their kids to eat the next day, or make sure to set aside money everyday!

So why would the right wing stand against such an effective and successful program?

Well, as I pasted at the very top of this post, Dr. Josh Cowen, is an Education Policy professor at Michigan State University, and he nailed exactly why right wingers are fighting against it.

Programs such as free breakfasts and lunches for kids does strengthen the community bonds between families and the public schools. If there’s one thing Betsy Devos and her anti-public school brigade despise, it’s creating public school programs that work. She wants to tear them all down, and force Michiganders to pay vouchers for religious schools–some of those schools that ban LGBTQ+ kids from attending.

And naturally, they’re against it because these programs provide competition to anti-union grocery chain stores. Remember, the right wing claims to be for the working people, but you no better.

I’m all for programs that give us the best bang for the buck, and I’m all for programs that show positive results. By passing universal school meals, Michigan Democrats will once again show how they’re trying to make this a state where families want to live. We’ve tried giving major tax breaks to corporations and rich people, but we’re not seeing the results.

There’s much to be encouraged about when it comes to the education budget, and I’ll tackle all of it once the final budget is passed. But providing universal free meals to students is a no-brainer if we want to make Michigan competitive with other states.

It’s smart policy. It’s popular policy.

At a time when right wingers are fighting to ban books, attack teachers, and pass anti LGBTQ+ legislation across the country, what a eye-opening contrast Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democrats are setting in Michigan compared to Texas, Florida, or right next door in Indiana and Ohio!

It’s this kind of progressive change I wish we could see happening on the national level, but for now, let’s make this kind of positive progressive change right here.


Photo “middle school lunch room” by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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