WAUKESHA — The Waukesha School District Board voted 5-4 in favor of remaining in the federal free food program Monday night.
This comes after the board voted in June to opt-out of the federal program, a decision that became hotly contested in the community and gained national attention. Monday's votes reverse that previous vote.
The school district will now have access to the Seamless Summer Option free food program through the 2021-22 school year, which concludes either June 9 or June 10. The federal program does not include the summer school season in 2022.
There is no deadline to opt into the federal free meals program. The method of opting out again after Monday night's vote is ambiguous, school administration officials said at the meeting. School officials said they will reach out to the Department of Public Instruction for clarification.
For students to receive the free food from the federal program, families do need to sign up for the service via an application through the school district.
On Monday night, School Board President Joseph Como Jr. ended the meeting by sharing his hope for the board and community to come together on this issue moving forward.
"The great thing from my perspective is this community is and will unite. Maybe we have different ways of going about how. The keyword is a three-letter, is how are we gonna feed our children?"
According to the Department of Public Instruction, before Monday's vote, Waukesha was the only eligible public school district in the state to turn down this program.
Some Waukesha parents say they worry hundreds of students could go unfed at school if the Board of Education sticks with its decision.
Dozens of parents protested the district’s choice last Friday to opt-out of a free meals program that’s already paid for by the federal government. Parent and dietician Heidi Chada, hopes it leads to a change of heart.
“As a parent, I care about my own kids and all of the other kids in the district because at the heart of it, every kid deserves to have a fresh, healthy meal during the school day,” she said. “If you don't have food to eat when you're at school, your stomach is empty, your mind is going to be empty because you're focusing on your hunger."
In response to the financial hardships of the pandemic, the Waukesha School District and every other public school district in Wisconsin opted into the USDA’s free meals program in March of 2020. It offered students free breakfast and lunch regardless of income. Chasa says throughout that time, participation in school lunches increased 37 percent.
"About 1,400 to 1,500 more kids were eating every single day at school because they had the option to access a free meal,” she said.
But when the USDA extended the program through this school year, the Waukesha School Board voted unanimously back in June to opt-out. Instead, board members decided to go back to the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced lunch to qualifying students.
Board members argued that families who can afford to feed their children should do so, and they expressed concerns about people becoming too reliant on free meals.
"As we get back to what everyone believes is normal, we have decisions to make,” School Board President Joseph Como Jr. said on June 8. “What does normal mean and when is it normal? Is this part of normalization? I would say this is part of normalization, going back to our free and reduced lunch program, as opposed to feeding everyone."
The Waukesha School District says it uses data on students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs in its state and federal funding applications.
The district says future funding could be in jeopardy because fewer than 300 students’ families applied for free or reduced meals last year when free meals were already guaranteed. In previous years, they had between 600 to 800 applications.
Food Pantry of Waukesha County Executive Director Karen Tredwell says the data doesn’t tell the whole story.
"Families that are eligible for the reduced meals tend not to participate at a high level, because even the reduced rate can sometimes be economically challenging for them,” she said.
Tredwell argues the decision to opt out unfairly passes the expense onto parents, who still may not have bounced back financially from the pandemic.
“It provides a level playing field for all of those kids, and I think that's really something that is really advantageous to the community as a whole when you've got students who are succeeding, and good food is one of the building blocks for a successful student experience,” she said.
The school district released a statement Monday night. You can read that here.