Wisconsin school board pilloried for halting free meals program citing concern of "spoiled" children

The Waukesha School District board opted out of a federal program providing free meals to all students

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published August 27, 2021 2:53PM (EDT)

Empty school cafeteria (Getty Images/SDI Productions)
Empty school cafeteria (Getty Images/SDI Productions)

The Waukesha School District board opted out of a federal program providing free meals to all students in the district regardless of family income, cementing itself as the only school district that eschewed the aid throughout the entire state of Wisconsin. 

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ensured that every school in the U.S. would be given free meals through June of 2022 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The move was a boon for thousands of public schools experiencing financial straits amid a sharp, COVID-19-related decline in tax revenue. The program, dubbed the Seamless Summer Option, ensured that school children were on a more level playing field when it comes to having access to nutritious food.

But on June 9, the Waukesha School District board voted to return to pre-pandemic federal assistance levels over fears that free meals would cause families to "become spoiled" or develop an "addiction" to the service. 

"When you compare last summer's number of meals served to the current summer's level of participation, it is down 40%. This indicates a lowering in the demand for this program," the board said. "When looking at the free breakfast program, especially at the high school level, each student was handed a meal as they walked in the door. This led to a significant amount of uneaten food and meal-related materials ending up in the trash." 

The board further noted that there had been a 60% decline in families enrolling in the permanent free and reduced-price lunch program.

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The decision has sent shockwaves throughout the district, sparking particular ire amongst parents whose kids have benefited from free lunches. 

Chrissy Sebald, a soccer coach and foster parent, told The Washington Post that universally-free meals eliminated the stigma associated with the provision, helping her kids feel a stronger sense of belonging amongst their peers. 

"Kids called [my children] out for getting the different meals and asked them, 'Why do you get lunch every day?'" Sebald explained. "When it was free for everyone, you never had to have that conversation because everyone had access to it. So I really appreciated that it evened out the playing field in a way."

Dave Dringenburg, another Waukesha parent, said that the move was "out of touch with the community's needs."

"We're determined to make Waukesha as good as it can be, starting with something as easy as feeding kids," he told the Post. "This is a way to not only connect to other parents but also of realizing that change is possible — it's just a matter of being together to do it."

According to the Post report, the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, a social media group of around 900 parents and teachers in the district, has since June been fighting to reinstate the program, citing concerns around financial hardships associated with COVID-19.

The benefits of the Seamless Summer Option are backed not just anecdotally but statistically. 

According to the Waukesha County Food Pantry Executive Director Karen Tredwell, participation in the federal aid program jumped by 37%, with a 136% increase in the free breakfast program. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported that about 36% of the district's student body qualified for free and reduced-price meals from 2018 to 2019. 

WUWM noted that the district could opt back into the free lunch program at any time in the future.

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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Brief Federal Program Meals Opts Out School Waukesha Wisconsin