Michigan lawmaker admits: Free lunch is taxpayer-funded

Universal school lunch is a bill footed by taxpayers, not a gift given by politicians

There is no such thing as a free school lunch. It’s a common sentiment around these parts, at the Mackinac Center, but not so much in Michigan politics and the media.

But this week the center found an unlikely point of agreement with a Democratic state rep, when Jaime Churches, D-Wyandotte, responded to a Detroit News column on the free lunch fallacy.

“Media that promotes inflammatory rhetoric accusing legislators of buying votes is what contributes to a divisive culture,” Churches wrote.

“Food is a basic human need,” Churches continued. “Now tax dollars are working in a new way for our Michigan families, allowing all students access to school meals if needed.”

If the idea that politicians are buying votes with school lunches has taken root in Michigan, politicians and the media are to blame.

The Michigan Department of Education’s Aug. 4 announcement presents universal school lunch for 2023-24 as a gift given by Whitmer and company.

“Michigan’s 1.4 million public school children will be receiving nutritious free meals at school this year 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,” the press release begins.

Months later, Whitmer inverted the order, putting herself first and mentioning schoolchildren later.

In a Dec. 27 tweet, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wrote, “We made the largest investment” in lunches — we being the politicians who run Lansing. Only later does Whitmer circle back to mention the 1.4 million schoolchildren affected.

Left unmentioned in both accounts were the taxpayers who foot the bill.

The media likes the free lunch narrative because it’s more clickable than the truth. This is the same reason they describe a book readily available and purchasable as “banned” when a single library has pulled it off the shelves. It’s not true, but it’s clickable, and besides, who reads the news closely enough to tell the difference?

Politicians like the free lunch narrative because it portrays them as charitable. When they crow about granting “universal free lunch,” the media is always there to print those quotes faithfully, never challenging the premise. It’s a nice piece of business for both parties.

There’s just one problem: None of it is true. And as Churches has learned, all the response isn’t necessarily positive. Apparently all it took to earn a mention of the Michigan taxpayer was a mild-mannered criticism in the state’s second-biggest newspaper. Who knew?

You might be a supporter of universal taxpayer-funded school lunches. There are many such cases, even among our readers.

As a taxpayer, you should have thoughts about where your dollars are sent. I’ve heard it from readers and critics alike: If tax money should be spent on anything, it’s the feeding of children.

Fair enough.

So, why are politicians taking the credit for what was done with your money? Why are you OK with this?

Rep. Churches is right: Taxpayers, not politicians, fund school lunches. Now it’s on Churches and her colleagues to correct the record on social media and in interviews. As she and Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, push to make taxpayer-funded school lunch permanent, honest portrayals will go a long way.

Let this be a lesson to Lansing: Don’t take credit for anything you’re not willing to take blame for.

James David Dickson is a Detroit News columnist and managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.