GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WWMT) — Michigan may become the fifth state in the nation to offer free breakfast and lunch to students in K-12 public schools, as long as a proposal from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer makes it through the budget negotiation process.
Whitmer included the $160 million budget item in her Fiscal Year 2024 education budget proposal, which she unveiled in early February. The $160 million provision would cover the costs for one year of meals.
On Monday, the second-term governor advocated for the proposed program to come to fruition by packing up sack lunches at the Grand Rapids nonprofit Kids' Food Basket.
We know that if a child is going hungry and they’re at school, just worrying about where their next meal is going to come from is taking away from their ability to focus on what’s being taught in the classroom,” Whitmer told reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, and Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, joined the governor to pack the lunches.
The governor's office said 1.4 million public school students would receive the free meals. In 2021, where the most recent year data is available, 715,721 Michigan students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Jeff Thoenes is superintendent of Comstock Public Schools, one of the school districts in the state that already provides free meals for students because the area has a high number of low-income families.
Thoenes has been with Comstock for five years, but previously worked at other districts that didn't provide free meals to all students. He said, from what he has witnessed, families would benefit from not having the added burden of lunch debt, even with the reduced-price meals.
With everyone being free, there isn’t ... someone going into debt or some family that didn’t know their kid was not bringing their lunch, or they [the kid] spent [the money] differently,” he said.
He added that having free meals for all makes it easier for schools to implement the programs, reduce stigma over low-income accommodations, and boost learning.
“No one really goes hungry. Whereas, in the pay system, it would invariably be some kids that would go hungry,” Thoenes said.
Should Whitmer's proposal make it through closed-door budget negotiations, it wouldn't be the first time kids in the state had the opportunity to get free meals.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress approved a federal free lunch program , which children were able to access no matter their parents' income. The program ended in summer 2022 after Congress allowed the deadline to lapse without renewal.
Beyond the effort to make meals free, Whitmer is encouraging the use of more locally-sourced and healthy meals.
Many hands, you know, make light work," Kim Moore, vice president of communications and community engagement at Kids' Food Basket, said. "And you know, as community partners we all need to join together to end this problem.
Whitmer will be negotiating the details of her budget proposal with a Democrat-led legislature for the first time since she became governor.
Brinks stood by Whitmer Monday as she advocated for the plan.
We need to meet people’s fundamental needs," Whitmer said. "And so, by destigmatizing getting that free lunch and breakfast by making it available to all students, we think is really gonna go a long way.
The free breakfast and lunch program has faced some criticism, with Rep. Nancy DeBoer, R-Holland, saying that the children in Michigan who need free meals are already receiving them. DeBoer also said the plan left out children in private or non-public schools out.
“The governor's proposal to give out meals to everyone, regardless of need, would be unsustainable and eat into taxpayer resources that should be supporting kids in the classroom,” DeBoer said.