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Free lunch funding change worries some school officials

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Michigan school officials are concerned about children going hungry or accumulating lunch debt after Congress recently ended federal funding for free meals for all students.

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

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

There have been instances where a parent did not fill out the paperwork, meaning a child could not get the food they need or goes into lunch debt, Morgan said.

Parents have to shift from automatically having access to free meals to having to fill out paperwork to ensure their children get what they need. 

“Since paperwork was not needed for the past couple of years, some parents weren’t aware they had to fill it out for their children to qualify, ” said Tom Freitas, the director of food and nutrition services for Traverse City Public Schools. “There have been issues with not having paperwork in on time, which affects the amount of pre-ordering for meals.”

Traverse City Public Schools are trying to make sure all children who need free or reduced lunches are able to get them, he said. 

“We’re doing our best to serve all our children. Right now, our superintendent is focused on getting donations,” Freitas said.

“We’d never take away food from a child, but we do have policies in place to make sure we get the payment required. After a child is $10 in school lunch debt, the parents are contacted,” he said. 

This could be a problem for parents who thought that their child was getting free meals and are suddenly confronted with lunch debt.

Funding isn’t the only issue affecting free school lunches this fall. A shortage of administrators means delays in processing time for paperwork. 

Morgan said, “There’s a lot of paperwork that goes into providing free breakfast and lunch. The federal waivers made sure every kid had a meal automatically, meaning the paperwork wasn’t necessary and so this burden was removed for administration.”

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

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

Schools could take it upon themselves to continue to provide free meals for all students, as several districts across the state do. 

Grand Rapids Public Schools have been providing free breakfast and lunches for all students for seven years. 

“I think this has been extremely beneficial for our students,” said Jennifer Laninga, the nutrition services supervisor at Grand Rapids Public Schools. “All of 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 over 60% of students using free lunch services can apply for Community Eligibility Provision, federally funded through the Department of Agriculture.

However, schools are not guaranteed funding unless over 80% of their students are a part of the free lunch program. A more universal approach would streamline the process and make sure all students have access to free and healthy lunches, Laninga said.

Congress is reviewing the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, said Alex Rossman, the external affairs director at the Michigan League for Public Policy, and there is a possibility that universal access for free lunches could come back.

However, that isn’t likely in an election year, he said. Additional funding would be hard to achieve.

The MEA’s Morgan agreed.

“I don’t believe it’ll go anywhere. It’s not a big priority, even though 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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