MILWAUKEE (AP) — A suburban Milwaukee school district is meeting to possibly reconsider opting out of a federally funded free meal program, a move that met with widespread criticism from parents after school board members said they were concerned participating students would “become spoiled.”
The Waukesha school board planned a special meeting Monday to discuss its participation in the program. The meeting comes after parents and other advocates put pressure on the board to reconsider. The Alliance for Education in Waukesha held a rally outside the district office on Friday to call for reinstating the program.
Administrators opted into the supplemental program last year during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the school board has decided to end it, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“As we get back to whatever you want to believe normal means, we have decisions to make,” Joseph Como, president of the school board, said in a meeting. “I would say this is part of normalization.”
Board member Karin Rajnicek said the free program made it easy for families to “become spoiled.” Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for business services, said he feared there would be a “slow addiction” to the service.
Waukesha students from low-income families will still be able to apply for free or reduced-price meals under the traditional National School Lunch Program.
In addition, as was practice before the pandemic, young students in grades lower than high school who come to school without a packed lunch, money or an accepted lunch program application, may be given cheaper meals of cheese sandwiches, finance director Sheri Stack said.
“Essentially we’re going back to the pre-COVID times,” Como said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to extend the Seamless Summer Option during the pandemic to offer free meals year-round has allowed for more COVID-safe practices by eliminating the need to collect payments and allowing meals to be served more easily in classrooms or outside.
The decision also allowed students to be fed regardless of their ability to pay, qualify, convince their parents to fill out forms, or withstand stigma associated with qualifying. Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force, said the program is vital for ensuring access to food.
All districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program were eligible to extend the Seamless Summer Option. Of the 97% of Wisconsin school districts that were eligible, Waukesha is the only one to opt out of the extension this school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Waukesha School Board Treasurer Patrick McCaffery said in a meeting he had not been aware that all school meals were being provided for free. He said he was confident that students who couldn’t afford meals would be able to qualify under the traditional program.
“Our administrative team has never let a large amount of kids fall between the cracks and it’s not going to happen next year,” McCaffery said. “I think anyone that’s concerned about it, their concerns are not needed.”