There are no free school lunches

Michigan’s universal free lunch program gets glowing media hype, but you’re still paying for it

“Michigan is now the seventh state in the country to completely fund school lunch when school starts in just a couple of weeks,” read an Aug. 14 tweet from WXYZ-TV, a Detroit news station. “It's having a huge impact on families.”

The story wasn’t much better. It carried the headline “How Michigan students are getting free breakfast and lunch this year.”

The story and the tweet are centered around two common inaccuracies, which we’ll see plenty of as Michigan readies for the 2023-24 school year:

  1. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody pays for every single one — in this case, the Michigan taxpayer.
  2. A program that hasn’t started yet can’t have had “a huge impact on families.”

The tweet got the funding situation right. These are taxpayer-funded lunches. They are not “free,” any more than rides on the QLine in Detroit are free. We the people pay for every single “free” meal.

The confusion is not without harm. If you think the welfare state is out of control now, wait until entire generations of Michigan school children have benefited from it, all while reading mainstream news stories touting “free” lunch. You hear people tell a lie often enough and you’ll believe it’s true. Doubly so when those people are your teachers, your parents and news outlets.

It’s natural, and even adorable, for children to have a childish understanding of how the food arrived on their plates. It’s wrong for the adults they trust to tell them lies. “Free school lunch” is a lie every time you hear it.

As for the second claim, it’s possible the program will have a “huge impact on families.” It just hasn’t had that impact yet, as most Michigan school districts have yet to start the school year.

For WXYZ to assign credit before a program even begins is misleading. It assumes facts not in evidence. It accounts for no trade-offs, such as the growth of the welfare state, the lack of universal need, and the apparent belief that “free lunch” grows on trees.

WXYZ reporter Kiara Hay interviews the chairman of the K12 Appropriations Subcommittee, along with a school principal and a math coach. Not surprisingly, they all agree that the lunch program is a great idea.

No hugely impacted families are quoted, nor does any source for the story suggest that anybody will have to pay for these 1.4 million daily meals.

And just like that, another false narrative — the lunches that aren’t free and don’t yet exist are having a huge impact — arrives on your television screen and in your social media feed.

James David Dickson is 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.