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Wisconsin School Board Fears Universal Free Lunch Will “Spoil” Poor Families

Four-hundred and seven eligible districts in the state opted to keep the federal program around for another year. This is the story of the one that didn't.

Update: The Waukesha School Board held its emergency meeting and reversed course. It will now provide free meals to all students through the upcoming school year.

In March of 2020, as COVID-19 arrived stateside, the United States Department of Agriculture took action. It made the Seamless Summer Option, a USDA-run program that provides funding to districts to provide free meals to students without income requirements or an application, available to school districts across the country. In the state of Wisconsin, all 408 eligible school districts opted into the program, which helped ensure students whose parents lost work and schools closed had access to healthy food.

With the damage of the pandemic lingering and ongoing, the SSO program was extended through the 2021-2022 school year. But in Wisconsin, only 407 school districts re-upped their participation in the easier-to-administer, more generous, more effective program.

The Waukesha School District, near Milwaukee, is the sole exception. The district board voted 9-0 in June to return to the National School Lunch Program, the free and reduced lunch program that pre-dates the pandemic. The NSLP does have income limits—families who make above certain thresholds are ineligible—and it requires an application. Both of these factors limit the students who can and do participate in the program.

It’s a decision that’s baffling on its face, particularly given that every other district in Wisconsin made the opposite decision, and given the fact that the SSO ran at no cost to schools. So why did the Waukesha school board turn down the more generous—to students and the district’s coffers—federal funding?

“Administratively we really don’t have a horse in this race,” Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for business services, claimed in a meeting, “but [for the neediest] students… there is a system that is there for them to access,” he continued, implying that students in poverty would be equally served by both programs.

To evaluate this move and the thinking behind it, Fatherly reviewed videos of multiple school board meetings held in May and June, when the school lunch issue was debated. Those discussions revealed some assumptions that seem to be shared by all members of the board, assumptions that are not always backed up by the evidence, including much of what board members and district staff shared in the meeting. Here’s the reasoning the board used—and where it fell short.

A program that is overly generous is a bigger concern than a program that is overly stingy.

The most dramatic comments of the whole debate came from board member and self-described “fiscal conservative” Karin Rajnicek at the May meeting of the Finance and Facilities committee. After talking about her personal experience with the program—her own kids had stopped bringing their lunches to school and were eating the federally funded meals—Rajnicek turned around and inveighed against the program, warning of the moral corruption that it could bring.

“But when you just make a blanket, everything’s free for everyone, that means that there are people out there that do not have kids that are paying for my kids to eat. Can we just get back to if I have children I should be able to provide for them, and if I can’t there is help for them, but stop feeding people that can provide for them?” Rajnicek asked. “I feel like this is a big problem, and it’s really easy to get sucked into, and to become spoiled, and then to just think… it’s everyone else’s problem to feed my children.”

Instead of anger or even disagreement with comments that effectively demonized poor people, Rajnicek’s comments found a warm welcome among other board members and school board staff.

“When do you stop? Because at some point people will get accustomed to this and the feds, whoever’s running who needs votes, might continue this until…That’s my fear, it’s the slow addiction of this service,” Clark said, of elected representatives taking action to improve the material conditions of their constituents’ lives.

The pre-COVID status quo was not enough.

“I would say this is part of normalization, going back to our free and reduced lunch program,” school board president Joseph Como Jr. concurred. “What I’ve heard is that we’re covering the families pretty well, and we have stop-gaps in place, cheese sandwiches, and some other things in place to help those kids.”

Como’s acceptance of some hungry kids—as long as it’s a minimal number—is echoed throughout the meetings. “Our administrative team has never let a large amount of kids fall between the cracks,” Board member Patrick McCaffery says at one point, acknowledging that despite their efforts of the staff there are some kids who do “fall between the cracks.”

In their haste to go back to the way things were before COVID-19, board members and district staff consistently ignore the evidence—that they themselves mention—that the free and reduced lunch program had lots of problems. Here’s a partial list of problems mentioned in the debates, all of which were swept aside in the rush back to “normalcy.”

  • Students who receive free or reduced-price lunches face a humiliating stigma from their more affluent peers.
  • It takes a lot of resources to get applications from all of the families who need to submit them, including sending notices to all district parents, following up on an individual basis, and working out payment plans for school lunch debt.
  • Church groups, generous teachers, and generous graduating seniors are donating money to the district in order to pay down the school lunch debts of students living at or near the poverty line.
  • Kids who have racked up school lunch debt rely on fruit bars from the school medical office or second-tier cheese sandwich lunches (that cost less than a regular meal, adding less to the student’s lunch debt, and are likely not as nutritionally valuable).
  • Problems like food waste, difficulty gauging demand, and less needy community members participating in the more generous program add up to bigger weaknesses than a program in which it takes a lot of effort to ensure every student has access to food, efforts that often fail.
  • The NSLP application process in the district keeps kids from getting lunch from their school. At one point, Clark says “We’re certainly reaching everyone who is proactive enough to fill out the paperwork right,” again implying that the kids with less than proactive parents go without lunch—and that’s an OK price to pay for fewer expenses.

Perhaps weary of the negative headlines from around the country (the Washington Post picked up the story last week), the district sent out a press release last week. The release notes a fear of declining applications that determine levels of federal and state aid and the fact that more affluent schools can opt-out of USDA nutrition programs entirely, among previously mentioned factors, for its decision. These arguments still depend on reinstalling barriers between students and the food they need during the upcoming school year, and they remain unconvincing.

It all adds up to a pretty discouraging picture for Waukesha families, one in which district leaders are ready to return to a status quo that, by their own admission, failed many students through no fault of their own.

But there is good news. A group of parents and students, including many who aren’t directly affected by the issue, are rallying to the defense of their peers who are.

“By opting out of this free federal meal program, they have taken away meals from families that are in the in-between,” said David Dringenburg, a parent who helped organize a rally in front of school district headquarters. This is an important part of the problem: as with all means-tested programs, there will be children whose parents make just enough to not qualify for free lunch when it becomes means-tested, but not enough to feed their children healthy and nutritious meals. “We want to help families in the school district, and we feel our presence here will help do that.”

It seems that Dringenburg might have been right. The board called an emergency meeting, scheduled for tonight, for “discussion and possible action on the National School Lunch Program and Seamless Summer Option.”