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

Waukesha School Board Opts Back In To Federal Free Meals Program After Backlash

A student prepares lunch in the cafeteria during the first day of school at Stamford High School on September 08, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.
John Moore
Getty Images
A student prepares lunch in the cafeteria during the first day of school at Stamford High School on September 08, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.

After an intense public backlash, the Waukesha School Board reversed its decision to opt out of a special federal free meals program.

The board originally decided in June to turn down the Seamless Summer Option, a temporary pandemic-related program that pays for meals for all students regardless of income.

Instead, the board voted unanimously to return to the National School Lunch Program, which requires families to apply for free or reduced-price lunch. One reason given was that it would push families to fill out the free lunch application – and the paperwork helps them access other aid.

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

But after WUWM and other news outlets – including the Washington Post – reported that Waukesha was the only Wisconsin district to turn down free meals for all students, the board experienced a backlash.

At a special meeting Monday night, board members, including Corey Montiho, said they had received numerous threats.

"I was told to put a bullet in my head," Montiho said. "I was told that children would die and students would starve. It’s unacceptable."

Board member Karin Rajnicek said her business was flooded with negative reviews after she was quoted as saying families would become spoiled by the free meal program. Rajnicek said she was tempted to use the free meal program last year, even though she could afford to buy lunch for her kids.

"The spoiled I referred to is me – it’s all of us – if we rely on the system when we can provide for ourselves," Rajnicek said "And we do have many services in place for those who need help. And if we don’t start saying no with our government handing out money that we can never get out from under, we won’t have the services to help these exact children and families we all want to help."

Other board members felt differently. Greg Deets said he voted to return to the National School Lunch Program in June without doing enough research.

"The truth is that many of our students are hungry throughout the school day, and we have the ability to do something about that," Deets said.

Board president Joseph Como, Jr. had similar concerns. He said the messages he received from community members opened his eyes to the fact that there are students who fall through the cracks at school.

"I don’t know – one of the things that I struggled with most is I eat every meal every day," Como said. "I cannot relate to being hungry."

Waukesha Superintendent James Sebert did not make a recommendation on the lunch program earlier this summer. But at Monday’s meeting, he recommended the board change course, and accept the Seamless Summer Option for the upcoming school year.

"It would help families who may not qualify for free and reduced lunch, but who are also experiencing situational poverty due to the pandemic," Sebert said.

When it came time to vote, board member Anthony Zenobia urged the others not to cave to what he said was politically-driven pressure from progressives.

"If it’s food today and free lunch today, it will be forced masking, forced whatever we want to do in the schools – because the mob will have the power to tell us what to do every time we walk in this building," Zenobia said.

The board voted 5-4 to reverse its decision, and use the universal free meals program (Seamless Summer Option). Deets, Como, Bill Baumgart, Patrick McCaffery, and Amanda Roddy voted in favor. Montiho, Rajnicek, Zenobia and Kelly Piacsek voted against.

The district also plans to encourage families to fill out free lunch applications, so that when the temporary program is over at the end of this school year, children who qualify for free meals can still get them.

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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