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A school opted out of a free meals program because they didn't want kids to 'become spoiled'

The Waukesha School District board in Wisconsin has opted out of a universal, free-for-everyone school lunch program in order to prevent an alleged "slow addiction" to the service.

A school opted out of a free meals program because they didn't want kids to 'become spoiled'
Image Source: Louisville Schools Open For In-Person Learning. LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 17. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Thousands of children across the United States rely on free meals provided by their school districts in order to meet their daily nutrition requirements. As a result of the pandemic, young children were at greater risk of food insecurity. Therefore, returning to in-person schooling and summer food programs offer some of the country's most marginalized students an opportunity to access at least one wholesome meal a day. The Waukesha School District board in Wisconsin, however, decided to opt out of a federally funded program that would give free meals to all students regardless of family income. They claimed the program would make it easy for children to "become spoiled," The Washington Post reports.


"As we get back to whatever you want to believe normal means, we have decisions to make," stated Joseph Como Jr., the president of the school board, at a meeting held on June 9 to discuss the district's return to the pre-pandemic National School Lunch Program. "I would say this is part of normalization." The nationwide program offers free and reduced-price lunches to only students who apply and receive federal money for them. Alternatively, federal authorities provide a Seamless Summer Option, through which school food authorities provide meals in low-income areas during the summer. At present, the Waukesha School District is the only eligible district out of 408 in the state of Wisconsin to reject the funding.


School board member Karin Rajnicek rejected the free program as she believed it made it easy for families to "become spoiled." Darren Clark, the assistant superintendent for business services, added that there could be what he phrased as a "slow addiction" to the service. Ioana Marinescu, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, disagrees. She affirmed, "If anything, it’s the opposite effect. The [program] that’s based on conditions because it’s required to have low income might create the disincentives the board is talking about, but the universal one is less likely to create disincentives."


The Alliance for Education in Waukesha, which comprises an estimated 900 parents and teachers, has since called for the district to rescind its decision and instead revert to the universal, free-for-everyone meal program. Karen Fraley, a mother of two children in the district, is one of the parents pushing for change. Although her family does not personally benefit from the program, her experiences with unemployment have made her aware of the difficulties other households may face. She explained, "It comes from just caring about the other members of our community. 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. The district really does have some great programs but the board definitely does seem out of touch with people." The Alliance even organized a rally on August 27, urging the school district to take action.


As per data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 4,249 students in the Waukesha School District qualified for free and reduced-price meals in the academic year of 2018-2019. That is 36 percent of the student body. Alan Shannon, a spokesman for the Food and Nutrition Service, highlighted the universal program’s lack of application process as a win: families would benefit and local authorities would not be tasked with processing applications. He shared, "The COVID-19 public health and economic crisis has highlighted the essential role that school meals play in addressing childhood hunger." Notably, forgoing the program could mean a loss of revenue for the Waukesha School District. Schools operating under the universal meal program receive a reimbursement of $4.32 per meal, whereas those operating under the National School Lunch Program receive $3.90 for free meals and $3.59 for reduced-price meals.


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