Kentwood — As the savory aroma of barbecue chicken wafted from a smoker outside, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer served student athletes wings and thighs, potatoes and asparagus inside the newly renovated Endeavor Elementary cafeteria.
Donning an apron with the words “Big Gretch” on it and a red Falcon mascot hat, she and Kentwood administrators focused on a worthwhile goal: feeding hungry students.
Whitmer stopped by Endeavor on Monday to join the food-service line and get a taste of school lunches in Kentwood. Her visit celebrated the July 20 passage of the historic $24.3 billion state education budget, which includes $160 million to provide all 1.4 million public school students free breakfast and lunch. The governor was joined by Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) and State Rep. John Fitzgerald (D-Wyoming).
‘This is something that is going to help make sure that no child is worried about where their next meal is coming from so when they’re in the classroom they can focus on the academics, which is why we created schools in the first place.’— Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Whitmer said the state’s investments in education, including tutoring, before- and after-school programming, literacy support and mental health resources, are targeted at improving student outcomes and bettering the classroom experience. The budget boosts per-pupil funding by 5%, or an additional $458 per student, for a total of $9,608 per pupil.
Tasty Food, Family Savings
Whitmer said free school meals will save the average family about $850 per student in their household. In Kentwood Public Schools, about 72% of students are economically disadvantaged, according to MiSchoolData.org numbers from 2022-2023. About 54% are economically disadvantaged state-wide. The district participated in a pilot free meal program last school year.
By providing meals for all, there will no longer be a stigma surrounding free lunch, Whitmer explained.
“This is something that is going to help make sure that no child is worried about where their next meal is coming from so when they’re in the classroom they can focus on the academics, which is why we created schools in the first place,” the governor said. “That’s what is so important — to make sure we have the foundation to be successful.”
The investment also supports local farmers, she said, referring to the fresh fruit and salad bar available to Kentwood students: “A lot of this is fresh Michigan produce, grown in Michigan, by Michiganders.”
Kentwood Public Schools Director of Child Nutrition Services Mo Shamali said his department focuses on ensuring students are receiving healthy meals made with fresh ingredients and seasonal produce. The chicken sizzling on the district’s new smoker, for example, was fresh, not frozen. The smoker will be used at different school buildings throughout the school year.
‘It doesn’t matter what their status is or where they are coming from. We are all Kentwood Public Schools, and we want to make sure … we fill students’ stomachs in order for their brains to function the correct way.’— Mo Shamali, director of Child Nutrition Services
As the most diverse school district in Michigan, meals that reflect diverse cultures and ethnicities are also key, he said, mentioning Scandinavian pot pie and Italian beef stew.
“Students deserve the best. Let’s walk the talk to make sure every kid has the ability to eat a free breakfast and lunch every single day,” Shamali said. “It doesn’t matter what their status is or where they are coming from. We are all Kentwood Public Schools, and we want to make sure we do our job as child nutrition (services) to make sure we fill their stomachs in order for their brains to function the correct way. We want to do our part.”
Student athletes, many hungry from their sports practices, said they enjoyed the food handed to them by Whitmer.
“We can all get the nutrients we need and fuel for the day to learn,” said senior Kaleigh Higgs, a volleyball player.