By David Fleet
Brandon Twp. — Since the start of the new school year Ashley LaHaye, Brandon Schools director of food services has been cooking.
From September through December the district has served about 17,000 more breakfasts, and 30,000 more lunches than the previous year.
“The higher participation rate definitely helps keep kids full and full kids perform better in schools,” said LaHaye. “Kids do not have to worry about having money in their accounts to be able to eat lunch everyday.”
The Brandon students join Michigan’s 1.4 million public school children who are now receiving two nutritious free meals at school as a result of a $160 million appropriation in the state’s School Aid budget adopted by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Gretchen Whitmer last year.
The Brandon School District hired two additional part-time kitchen assistants to make these extra meals and higher participation rate possible for students, said LaHaye.
“Our district runs a four week cycle menu, changed quarterly,” she said. “We get input from all of our staff, especially the ones who talk to the kids the most, on what the kids like and dislike, and make adjustments to the menu accordingly. We try to offer a variety of options, students have at least three options each day, while still sticking to the meal pattern requirements. We are able to offer several fresh fruits and vegetables each day, including fresh salads and fresh fruit cups prepared daily.”
Students in Brandon reflect the statewide response for breakfasts and lunches. Across the state the number of breakfasts jumped from 6,793,550 in September 2022 to 8,230,770 in 2023; lunches jumped from 13,146,178 in September 2022 to 16,460,3243 in 2023.
Lawmakers have deposited $245 million in a school meal reserve fund to help pay for future expenses in the program. However, the program is not a lock.
Despite the response from students and learning benefits from the two meals, lawmakers will bring the free lunch program back to the table later this year.
“No kid should go hungry, that’s why we have long offered free and reduced meals to students with financial need,” said State Senator 12th District Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Township). “But to spend an additional $160 million where there is no financial need while our state’s fourth graders are 43rd out of 50 states in reading scores, I don’t think that’s really the right priority for our education tax dollars.”
While some lawmakers continue to grapple with the future of the free breakfast and lunch program, Goodrich students are eating it up.
Megan Burny, Goodrich food service director said the program has definitely been positive.
“With the reimbursement rate it’s bringing in more money for our fund balance which is returned to our (food) program,” said Burny.
The district provides four hot meal choices everyday, she said.
From September to December 2023 the district has provided 23,346 more breakfasts for students compared to the 2022 school year. Similarly, lunches have jumped 28,301 over that same time.
“The breakfasts and lunches are up by 40% over last year,” she said. “We still have the same number of employees as before, however, we did increase a few hours of employees.”
Bottom line is the students are hungry, they are eating the breakfasts and lunches, she said.
“It provides the kids an opportunity,” she said. “However kids still bring their own lunch, but the jump in the number of breakfasts and lunches now speak volumes.”
For the breakfast and lunch to be reimbursable there are specific components made available, which includes a fruit or vegetable.
“There is some waste there,” she said. “We provide a share bin so others can pick it up if they want and it works especially at the high school level. The lower grades are a little more wasteful.”
Free and reduced meals in Goodrich were about 23% of the total students taking hot lunch and breakfast, she said.
“We want kids to eat healthy,” she said. “If you’re hungry you really can’t learn. There’s a reason the numbers have increased since the new program went into effect. It takes the stress off the students and the parents. It’s a win-win.”
By David Fleet