A school board in one of the most politically conservative counties in Wisconsin opted out of a federally-funded program that guarantees free meals to all students in every school in the country, becoming the only district in the state to make that choice.
The board’s rationale? Some officials in the Waukesha School District believed children and family were becoming “spoiled” by getting the free meals.
The federal program, which provides meals to every child in nearly every school district in the country, was begun in response to the economic difficulties many families faced due to the coronavirus pandemic.he program was started in the fall of 2020 and was extended into this upcoming school year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in April.
“USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines,” Department Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement at the time.
But instead of continuing that program, which came at no expense to Waukesha schools, the district opted to return to the older, pre-pandemic National School Lunch Program, which offers free and reduced-price lunches only to students who meet qualifying standards.
Hundreds of parents and teachers in the community disagreed with the move, which the district made in June, and are trying to get the school board to reverse its decision. Parents and educators in the district, who have formed a group called the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, planned to rally in protest the district’s decision on Friday, outside of the Waukesha School District’s administrative building.
Officials within the district previously tried to justify the move as an effort to return to how things were before the pandemic.
“As we get back to whatever you want to believe normal means, we have decisions to make. I would say this is part of normalization,” said Waukesha school board president Joseph Como.
Karin Rajnicek, another member of the board, used alarming terminology in signaling her agreement to end the federally-funded program, saying that the program allowed for families to “become spoiled” by having free meals. Darren Clark, an assistant superintendent for the district, described the program as leading to a “slow addiction” for families.
But other members of the district who opposed the move noted that going back to the old program would result in some children going hungry. Several children who didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunches before the pandemic started simply didn’t have lunch, noted Jess Huiniker, an executive assistant for the Waukesha School District.
“We have seen kids that don’t eat,” Huiniker said.
Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force, derided the decision as amoral.
“When children are in your company and it’s meal time, you feed them. You don’t sort them,” Tussler told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, adding that the federally-funded program “gives the district the opportunity to not sort children, to feed them all.”
Parents in the district, too, sounded off against the district’s moves, noting that the free meals program was a big help for many families in the schools.
“I think after everything we’ve been through in the last 18 months, anything we can do to help these families and help these kids with the basic necessities of life is so important,” said foster parent Chrissy Sebald to local news station WISN.