By Chandra Madafferi
From planning a holiday feast or sharing Instagram-worthy photos of an amazing meal, food invokes powerful feelings.
But for some families that struggle with food insecurity, those strong feelings aren’t necessarily positive.
A student once asked me, “Mrs. M., can you just go to a grocery store and get whatever you want, or do you have to make choices and go without?”
It was clear this student and their family faced tough choices about how to pay for food — and that free and reduced school meals were critical to their lives. But there are countless others who struggle with food insecurity and don’t have access to the meals they need.
Beginning this school year, Michigan public school students will no longer have to go hungry, and their families will have one less thing to worry about. Thanks to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s bipartisan education budget, free school breakfast and lunch are fully funded this year for 1.4 million children in our state.
Michigan is now one of just eight states that offer universal free school meals — a longtime goal for the Michigan Education Association and the educators we represent, who are happy and relieved to finally have in place for their students.
At the MEA, we believe that every child should have the resources they need to succeed, including life-sustaining nutrition. This is the greatest country on Earth, and how we care for our children should reflect that.
Many think only about people in need when it comes to programs like this, but it’s important to know that free universal school meals help all kids. It takes the stigma away from accessing free meals and puts all students on an even playing field in our schools and cafeterias. This program will also ease the pinch of inflation for families by helping with a basic household expense — not to mention saving a little time packing lunches.
And for school employees, who have quietly spent from their own pockets to help students without lunch money or stocked breakfast bars and fruit in their desk drawers, it removes a student learning hurdle from our classrooms and a cost from our wallets.
Free school breakfast can help children’s mental health, as proper nutrition to start the day can reduce anxiety, depression and hyperactivity, according to a report from the Food Research and Action Center. With student mental health a top concern among parents and educators, starting every student’s day with a healthy meal is a positive step in addressing this crisis and helping them focus on schoolwork.
The benefits to students go beyond academics, helping to lower childhood obesity and spur healthier eating habits, especially with more fresh fruit and vegetables available due to increased school meal standards.
In addition, providing students with free meals helps entire families by reducing food insecurity at home. Before the pandemic, the national free lunch program lifted 1.2 million people out of poverty, including 661,000 children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. Universal free meals during the pandemic made it clear to educators across Michigan that this was something worth continuing and expanding, which is why we wholeheartedly supported the governor’s proposal in this year’s budget.
Let’s forever leave behind the days of lunch debts, malnourished students and parents worrying about feeding their kids each day. State leaders should extend the new universal free school meals program beyond the 2023-24 budget and make it permanent. This will help ensure food insecurity is no longer a stumbling block for student success, and it will provide educators the resources needed to make sure no Michigan student goes hungry.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, Michigan Education Association President Chandra Madafferi, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.