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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Waukesha Is Only Wisconsin School District To Opt Out Of Federal Free Meals Program

Students line up for lunch in 2019 at Milwaukee's Golda Meir School.
Emily Files
Students line up for lunch in 2019 at Milwaukee's Golda Meir School.

During the new school year, Wisconsin public school students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch regardless of their family’s income, unless they are in the Waukesha School District.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, Waukesha is the only district in the state to turn down a special federal free meals program.

The pandemic prompted the USDA to offer school districts an extension of the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) meals program. The SSO program makes all students eligible for free lunch, instead of students needing to qualify for free or reduced meals based on income.

But Waukesha school board members oppose the idea. At a May meeting, Karin Rajnicek said families that can afford to feed their children should.

"I had three kids, I had them and so I'm going to feed them. I feel like that's the responsibility of the adult," Rajnicek said. "I feel like this is a big problem, and it’s really easy to get sucked into and become spoiled and think, it’s not my problem any more, it’s everyone else’s problem to feed my children."

Waukesha district CFO Darren Clark agreed, saying he doesn’t want families to become dependent on free meals.

"That’s my fear is that it’s the slow addiction of this service," Clark said. "There is that concern — free is a funny thing."

The board voted unanimously in June to return to the National School Lunch Program, which requires families to fill out an application to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Board members said going back to this program will still provide help to the families who need it.

The decision alarmed people working to keep kids from going hungry. Waukesha County Food Pantry Executive Director Karen Tredwell says school meals are a vital source of nutrition for children. She argues that participating in the federally-funded program has no downside for the community.

"My concern is that not only are they not participating in a program that could greatly benefit their students, there is not going to be any positive benefit to taxpayers in the county if they don’t participate," Tredwell says.

Tredwell says last school year, when meals were free for all Waukesha students, participation in the lunch program increased by 37% and participation in breakfast increased by 136%.

Waukesha parent and dietician Heidi Chada is hoping the school board will reconsider its decision. "My question is why are we the only [school district] who is opting out and saying eating a meal every day at school is not important for the health of our students?" Chada asks.

According to DPI, the Waukesha district could opt back into the free meals program at any time. The district superintendent and board president did not return requests for interviews by deadline for this report.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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