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Free school meals saving Michigan families hundreds this school year

This school year, all Michigan students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch any day they’re at school, saving families hundreds of dollars.

ZEELAND, Mich. — This school year, all Michigan students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch any day they’re at school. So, how will this work and how much money is this saving Michigan families? Zeeland Public Schools gave 13 ON YOUR SIDE a look inside one of the high school kitchens for those answers.

Sarah Stone is the district’s nutrition services food director. She said, “There is never enough hands on deck, I can tell you that.”

This is why Zeeland Public Schools has added an additional kitchen staff member at every school to make sure they’re prepared for the changes.

“This year will be different because all meals in the public school system will be free for all students regardless of income status,” said Stone.

It’s called the Healthy School Meals for All program and is part of Michigan’s latest education budget. $160 million has been set aside so that the state can reimburse schools for providing these meals.

Stone says this will mean, “We will be producing a lot more meals.”

This isn’t the first time free meals have been offered to students. Congress made school meals free to students during the pandemic. The food director explained that the number of students ordering lunch doubled when this happened and the district is expecting to see even higher numbers this school year.

The program will save Michigan families a lot of dough. Breakfast cost $2.15 and lunch cost $3.20 in Zeeland for a family with two high schoolers. In Michigan, schools must have at least 180 days of school. This would have cost almost $1,926 in one school year for school meals.

Free food isn’t the only change. As part of the new state program, schools are also being tasked with incorporating healthy options following USDA guidelines.

“Lower sodium, reduced sugars at breakfast,” said Stone. “Third Day Produce in Zeeland, it’s a half a mile away here from the high school. He provides all our lettuce for Zeeland Public Schools. This will be the third year and it’s amazing. He will harvest the lettuce and drop it off to us within minutes. It’s fresh. You can’t beat that.”

Stone pointed out that, “This garden we just got in in June. So, this has been my summer project,” adding that, “We make a lot of fresh pico.”

This not only makes lunchtime healthier but more appealing to students with meals like “beef teriyaki dippers and then it’s a brown rice,” or a “baja fish taco with house-made baja sauce.”

School officials say it’s important that parents understand these changes don’t mean all food is free while at school.

“We sell drinks and chips. They’re all smart snack approved, whole grain cookies,” said Stone.

She added that, “All those things are a la carte and there’s pricing for that. Same with if a child wanted an extra slice of pizza with their meal, anything above the meal is an extra charge.”

Zeeland school officials still recommend that families fill out the application for free and reduced meals in order to qualify for other assistance.

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