The Waukesha School District in Wisconsin is under fire for opting out of a federally funded program that provides free meals to all students—regardless of income. Earlier this summer, the school board voted to return to the pre-pandemic National School Lunch Program. This program offers free and reduced-price meals to students who apply for it, and the school receives federal money for those students only.
The decision to opt out of the program has angered many parents within the district. Since the school board vote in June, the Alliance for Education in Waukesha—which consists of about 900 parents and teachers in the area—is advocating for the Waukesha district to return to the universal free meal program.
School board members and other school officials feel that the free-for-everyone meals can produce an "addiction" to the service.
Waukesha school board member Karin Rajnicek said the free program made it easy for families to "become spoiled." Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for business services, said providing free meals could lead to a "slow addiction" to the service.
This way of thinking is consistent with harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that are often thrust upon lower-income families who rely on federal assistance to survive.
The Washington Post reports that, per the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 4,249 students in the Waukesha School District qualified for free and reduced-price meals in 2018-2019—36 percent of the student body. Waukesha is the only school district in Wisconsin that is choosing to opt-out of the free meal program during the ongoing pandemic.
Many people and fellow parents shared their thoughts on the district's decision after it made national news.
this is just a continuation of the 'Black people want free stuff' conservative talking point that will never die. https://t.co/J4ZX2GPZ2I— Imani Gandied Apples (@AngryBlackLady) 1630082646.0
Just. Wow. I’m currently working on getting ALL Tacoma students free meals for the next four years. The idea that… https://t.co/hCLGk0s8Du— indoor cat (@cityswordfern) 1630083007.0
They could become spoiled by eating a meal? How so? Do they k ow that many of the kids who get free lunch might not… https://t.co/z0yNRVB1KK— Jax Persists (@LadyJayPersists) 1630082401.0
This is moral bankruptcy out of Wisconsin. Absolutely appalling. Children have a right to be fed. https://t.co/GA2r0szcfH— Robyn Vining (@RobynVining) 1630082238.0
The problem with making people apply for free or reduced lunches is that often, kids still go hungry. Missing meals and experiencing hunger impair children's development and achievement.
An executive assistant for the Waukesha district tells the Post that, during the pre-pandemic program, she's witnessed children not eating during school because they didn't qualify for free or reduced-price options, or their parents didn't submit applications.
"We have seen kids that don't eat," she said.
Studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry document the negative effects of hunger on children's academic performance and behavior in school. Hungry children have lower math scores, and are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss school entirely.
One mom in the district, Karen Frarely, tells the Post that with pandemic-related unemployment and other difficulties families face, the free meal program is essential.
"It comes from just caring about the other members of our community," Frarely said. "Even if it's not my kid who needs that food, it's just a matter of putting yourself in someone else's shoes and understanding that we all need to take care of each other."