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Thousands of Michigan children are eligible for free school meals. Here’s how you can make sure your kid gets theirs.

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COVID-era universal school lunches — where all kids were given free meals regardless of income, feeding an additional 10 million students nationwide — has ended.

The change signals a return to pre-pandemic norms, where parents again have to apply each year to receive free or reduced meal prices.

"I’m really worried about families that may not be aware that they’re going to have to take an affirmative step for their kids to get those meals, and there are kids across the country that will fall through the cracks," Vice President of No Kid Hungry Lisa Davis said to NBC in June.

Some Michigan school districts have implemented universal free lunches for all of their students, like Detroit Public Schools Community District. Many school districts are eligible for free lunches for all, and a list of those schools can be found here.

But unlike California, Michigan does not have a universal meal program. Over 715,000 of Michigan public K-12 students qualified for free or reduced lunches' income bracket in 2021.

In fact, the share of children who are eligible for the lunches went up by five percentage points in the past five years.

Michigan school districts should be sending applications to families around the beginning of the school year. They should be sent to every household in the district.

Unless the school notifies a family that they are approved for free or reduced meals, parents should send in a new application.

Anyone can apply, regardless of citizenship status. Only one application needs to be filled out per household. Remember to fill out the application completely and report any income, including public assistance.

The information below is shared by the Michigan Department of Education's website and by Amanda Nothaft, a senior manager at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions lab who has worked at the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service for several years.

Who is eligible? 

Below is the chart for federal income eligibility.

Michigan Department of Education
Federal income eligibility for free/reduced meals.

For reduced meals, breakfast is $0.30 and lunch is $0.40.

Those students who can get free meals also include:

  • Children enrolled in a Head Start program.
  • Children who receive benefits through the Food Assistance Program, Family Independence Program, or Food Distribution Program on Native American reservations. 
  • Foster children who are the legal responsibility of a foster care agency or court.
  • Children who are homeless, runaways, or migrants

What if my income is not steady?

MDE suggests you list the amount you normally make. If some household members have no income, leave the space blank or write 0.

Where do I apply?

Your school district should be sending you an application near the beginning of the school year.

But many school districts have online applications — check your school district for the online form or see what they require. This may be under the “Food Services” tab. For example, if your child goes to Ann Arbor Public Schools, the form can be found here.

The 2022-2023 Michigan application can be found here.

The older United States application can be found here. (This link leads to a download of a document.) Other languages can be found here, including:

Apply early

The deadlines are rolling, but parents should apply early to secure meals for their kids as quickly as possible.

Amanda Nothaft, the Poverty Solutions data manager, pointed out that once a family is eligible, they are eligible for the entire year.

And if a family didn’t meet the eligibility requirements but their income later drops — for example, becoming unemployed in the middle of the school year — they can apply then and get the meals.

Apply anyway 

Nothaft said families should apply — even if they don’t qualify for other programs, like food stamps. They may qualify and not even know it.

“If you are struggling with food security, you should apply for school lunch,” she said.

What if I might need more help?

Other programs to apply for include the Food Assistance Program, which can be found here.

You can also allow your school to share your application with other state or federal programs that provide assistance. A link to this application can be found here (leads to a download of a Word document.)

Many summer lunch programs are ending in August, but some can still be found on this state map.

Forgotten Harvest and Pantry Net also both have consistent information about where to find meals. There are public community fridges in Detroit as well.

But tens of thousands of kids could be left out

While Amanda Nothaft, the Poverty Solutions analyst, said the free and reduced lunch program is great, she called universal free lunch “a fantastic idea.”

“Kids can’t learn with an empty stomach,” she said.

“Just the impact of school meals on behavior, discipline, learning…growth, nutrition...just all of these different things that it touches. So many things. It's so important.”

It helps reduce the stigma kids face for being low-income, gets them a healthy, hot meal, exposes them to different types of food, and reduces the burden for parents to think about money in their kid’s account.

Nothaft added the application process can be frustrating and tracking down people can be difficult, if they moved houses or do not have computer access. She said it is important for school districts to partner with families to make sure information is being shared and kids’ needs are being tracked.

There is also the question of those who fall outside the income eligibility.

For free meals, families’ income would need to be within 130% of the poverty line. That’s $36,075 for a family of four.

For reduced meals, they must be under 185% of the poverty line, which is $51,338 for a family of four.

“Especially depending on where you are, you're missing kids. Places where the cost of living is really high, that 185 doesn't go as far as it does in other places,” Nothaft said. “That's another reason why I think the universal meals are great, because it's those families in between that really could benefit.”

In fact, in Michigan, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) requires families to fall under 217% of the poverty line.

Using data from the 2019 American Community Survey, Nothaft estimated the number of additional children in Michigan aged 6-17 who would qualify for free or reduced meals using the more liberal CHIP income threshold is at least 85,399.

In a time of inflation and rapidly rising food prices, she said the reduced meal prices could be a major relief for families.

“The family at 200% of the federal poverty line that's living somewhere with a really high cost of living could really benefit from just knowing that they don't have to make lunch. Their kid can get lunch at school,” Nothaft said.

Is there any legislation on this? 

Congress failed to include extending the waiver program in its funding bill after pushback from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-AL).

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has been active on this front, attempting to extend the free meal waivers past June 30 and had bipartisan support. Her bill is called the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act of 2022.

Funding for universal free meals will end this month. But Senator Debbie Stabenow is trying to stop that from happening.

“Our schools just need some more time to get through this,” Stabenow told Stateside in June. “The idea that somehow COVID’s over and we don’t need to be supporting schools and healthy children is just not right, it’s not accurate.”

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act is scheduled to be revisited this year and can be improved. The Food Research & Action Center supports the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act of 2022 as part of that revision.

As a researcher who has been working with school lunches for years, Nothaft admitted she has trouble getting her head around the free lunch opposition.

“Who doesn't want to feed children? (It) seems pretty universal that this is a good thing,” she said. “Let's make it easy for families and school districts to feed these kids.”

Lindsey Smith contributed to this report.

Clarification: This story was updated to include the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act of 2022 and explain the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act's status.

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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