After Controversy, Wisconsin District to Provide Free School Meals to All Students

All 408 eligible districts in Wisconsin will now participate in the more generous program this year.

In an emergency meeting last night, the Waukesha School District board voted 5-4 to reverse its June decision to opt out of a federal program that provides free meals to public school students regardless of income and without an application to prove eligibility.

The original vote that was overturned last night was 9-0, in favor of returning to the pre-pandemic National School Lunch Program that provides free and reduced-price lunches to eligible students, ensuring they will not accrue school lunch debt this year.

The NSLP requires an application completed by a parent, which isn’t always an easy or possible ask. It also has income requirements, and students whose families make just a bit too much can slip through the cracks.

Waukesha was the only eligible district of the 408 in Wisconsin to opt out of the more generous Seamless Summer Option.

Monday’s meeting was called after the decision to opt-out received national attention, thanks in large part to board member Karin Rajnicek’s incendiary statement: “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.”

“The ‘spoiled’ I referred to, it’s me, it’s all of us, if we rely on the system when we can provide for ourselves,” Rajnicek said last night, attempting to explain comments that sounded like shaming low-income parents that caused the Waukesha school board to go viral in the first place.

She was among the four board members who did not change their vote last night. Those four members also, for some reason, brought up unrelated culture war topics—cancel culture, the socialist left, critical race theory, vaccine and mask mandates, and young adult books they wanted to ban from curricula—into the meeting, eventually veering into conspiratorial rants.

“It’s time for parents and community members to start paying attention to the forces at work here,” board member Kelly Piacsek said darkly. “When the federal government is responsible for feeding all students at all times regardless of need, they have ultimate authority and we don’t need local school boards anymore.”

School boards have many other responsibilities that make them relevant, of course, and the fact that Piacsek was speaking as a member of a school board exercising its authority to accept or reject federal funds rendered her argument nonsensical. But she wasn’t alone.

“If it’s food and free lunch today, it will be forced masking, forced whatever-we-want-to-do in schools because the mob will have the power to tell us what to do,” board member Anthony Zenobia said. His side also accused the five other board members of capitulating to “the mob,” an insidious name for the Waukeshans who spoke out against the board’s decision, and “punting” on the issue.

The five vote-changers were indignant at the accusation that they changed their minds based on cowardice and not a genuine change of heart.

“I made the earlier votes without really looking at all the implications and I wasn’t really informed and I apologize for that,” board member Greg Deets said. “The truth is that many of our students are hungry throughout the school day and we have the ability to do something about that.”

The most powerful moment of the evening came from Board president Joseph Como, who spoke eloquently of spending his entire life living in and around Waukesha without knowing the stories of suffering that he heard after the board’s previous vote.

“I appreciate your input very much,” he said to those who’d shared those stories. “I eat every meal every day. I cannot relate to being hungry. I’ve been blessed,” he said, before attempting to end the meeting on a less contentious note.

“The great thing from my perspective is this community is and will unite. Maybe we have different ways of going about how. The keyword is a three-letter [word], is how are we gonna feed our children?”

Ensuring that every student in the district has access to free, nutritional meals at school seems like a good start, and it’s thanks to pressure on the board that Waukesha students won’t go hungry when school starts tomorrow.