Free lunch funding change worries some Michigan school officials

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LANSING — Michigan school officials are concerned that kids are going hungry or racking up debt for lunch after Congress recently ended federal funding for free lunches for all students.

“Families are still grappling with the economic downturn during the pandemic,” said Thomas Morgan, communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “It’s not over, and we need to make sure the children are taken care of.”

During the pandemic, Congress passed funding to guarantee all students free meals. This ended in August, although children who previously would have been entitled to free or reduced lunches will still be able to get them if their parents fill out paperwork.

There have been instances where a parent hasn’t completed the paperwork, which means a child can’t get the food they need or goes into lunch debt, Morgan said.

Parents must move from automatic access to free meals to having to fill out paperwork to ensure their children get what they need.

“Because the paperwork was not required for the past two years, some parents were unaware that they had to complete it for their children to qualify,” said Tom Freitas, Director of Food and Counseling Services. Traverse City Public School Nutrition. “There have been issues with not having the documents in time, which affects the number of pre-orders for meals.”

Traverse City Public Schools is trying to ensure that all children who need free or reduced lunches can get them, he said.

“We do our best to serve all of our children. Right now our superintendent is focused on getting donations,” Freitas said. “We would never withdraw food from a child, but we have policies in place to ensure we receive the required payment. When a child owes $10 for their school meals, the parents are contacted.”

This could be a problem for parents who thought their child was getting free lunches and suddenly find themselves in lunch debt.

Funding isn’t the only issue affecting free school meals this fall. A shortage of administrators means delays in document processing times.

Morgan said: ‘There is a lot of paperwork to provide free breakfast and lunch. The federal waivers ensured that every child had a meal automatically, which meant that paperwork was not required and therefore this burden was removed for the administration.

Others say the change might not be too troublesome for schools.

“I don’t think schools will necessarily have any real difficulty going back to how free lunches were treated a few years ago,” said Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan School Board Association. “The waivers made it easier for school administration, but it’s not like the infrastructure wasn’t already in place.”

Midland Public Schools Superintendent Michael Sharrow agreed and added that over the past 10 years the number of people eligible for school meal assistance has steadily increased.

“It’s gone back to what it was, pre-pandemic, which you have to qualify for (in order to receive free or reduced-price meals),” Sharrow said in a previous interview. “I believe the qualifying factor has been lowered, so more people would be eligible.”

Schools could take it upon themselves to continue providing free lunches to all students, as several districts in the state are doing.

Grand Rapids Public Schools has provided free breakfasts and lunches to all students for seven years.

“I think this has been extremely beneficial to our students,” said Jennifer Laninga, supervisor of Grand Rapids Public Schools Nutrition Services. “All the stigma with free or reduced lunches is eliminated. Students who would otherwise avoid using these services for fear of being judged are now on an equal footing with other students.

According to Laninga, schools with more than 60% of students using free lunch services can apply for a Community Eligibility Provision, funded by the federal government through the Department of Agriculture.

However, schools are not guaranteed funding unless more than 80% of their students participate in the free lunch program. A more universal approach would streamline the process and ensure all students have access to free, healthy lunches, Laninga said.

Congress is considering reauthorizing child nutrition, said Alex Rossman, external affairs director for the Michigan League for Public Policy, and it’s possible universal access to free lunches will return.

However, that is not likely in an election year, he said. Additional funding would be difficult to obtain.

Morgan from MEA agreed.

“I don’t think he’s going anywhere. It’s not a high priority, although it should be,” Morgan said.

“It’s incredibly frustrating, especially when you realize that they’re literally taking food away from the kids who need it most.”

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