Waukesha schools debate free lunch for all students

Amidst national controversy, the School District of Waukesha will meet Monday, Aug. 30 to revisit its decision to say no to a federal free lunch program that provides meals to all students, regardless of family income.

"There’s so many families that are going to benefit from this. And there’s no reason in my mind that this program doesn’t work," said Chrissy Sebald with Alliance for Education in Waukesha. "There’s no reason that the school district should not change their decision on this."

In support of free lunches for all, some parents, students and others joined an Alliance for Education protest on Friday, Aug. 27, rallying outside the district's headquarters. One of the messages left in chalk said, "Feeding families doesn't spoil anyone."

The school board decided unanimously in June not to rejoin the federal program. At that time, one school board member said she was worried people could "become spoiled" with the free lunch for all program.

"We have 300 (is it 300 this year?) homeless kids in our population, but we have help for them. And we have free and reduced lunch for our low-income families and all of that. But when you make a blanket, everything’s free for everyone that means that there are people out there that do not have kids that are paying for my kids to eat, said school board member Karin Rajnicek in May. "Stop feeding people who can provide for them. I feel that this is a big problem. And it’s really easy to get sucked into and to become spoiled and to think it’s not my problem anymore. It’s everyone else’s problem to feed my children."

The school board and administration cited a number of reasons to opt out of the program for free meals for all, and instead return to providing free and reduced lunches to children in need.

"I think it’s important to point out that the most needy students, under either selection you would make, there is a system that is there for them to access," said Darren Clark, School District of Waukesha assistant superintendent for business services, when the school board was considering the issue in June.

Other worries were about free breakfast food going to waste. Another was that students in need would be helped without having to give free meals to all.

Another problem brought up is that people do not have to fill out the paperwork to get the free lunch, so the number of people considered "free and reduced lunch students" is trending down. That number is important in federal calculations for school funding.

"I would say this is part of normalization. Going back to our free and reduced lunch program, as opposed to feeding everyone," said Waukesha School Board President Joseph Como, Jr. in June.

That has been Waukesha's plan since the unanimous vote.

"If there’s just kids that we are just missing, if we went back to free and reduced lunch program, now is the time to be telling me: ‘Oh, there’s a bunch,’ but what I've heard is we’re covering the families pretty well, and we have stopgaps in place: cheese sandwiches, and some other things in place to help those kids," Como Jr. said in June.

And that is the question today: is free lunch for all needed? Some parents say it is a help and should return to Waukesha schools.

"It’s not just ones that are on free and reduced lunches. We know they are going to get help," said David Dringenburg with Alliance for Education in Waukesha. "It’s the families that are in-between, families that…I know a dad that lost his job. They had income still, it didn’t get them free and reduced lunch, but this was a benefit for the family, this was a blessing to their family. It helped relieve their burden."

Protest supports free lunch for all program at Waukesha schools.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction told FOX6 News that Waukesha is the only eligible district in the state to opt-out of the program. There are 13 school districts that don't qualify because they are not part of the regular USDA school meal programs.

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One school board member, Corey Montiho, spoke to FOX6 off-camera and said the national attention on the district is good, that sunlight is good for everything – to point them in the right direction.

The school board will host a special meeting on Aug. 30 to revisit whether to rejoin the federal free lunch for all program.

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