MILWAUKEE — For 75 years the U.S. has had a school lunch program in place to help needy children get a free or reduced priced meal. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 77 percent of children in the country received a free or reduced lunch in 2020.
In response to the pandemic, the USDA waived all eligibility requirements and are allowing all kids to eat for free. It was meant to help parents and caregivers who may have suddenly had their jobs cut or their income disrupted get help. But at the end of this school year, free meals for all are suppose to end. While some are happy to see things return to normal, others want the program to continue permanently.
TMJ4 News goes 360 to look at all sides of the issue on whether free meals should continue. We are talking to a local expert about the need for free meals in the community; a lawmaker who is against continuous federal handouts; community members who don’t think it is necessary to supply meals to everyone; and a parent who supports and has used the benefits. That is where we begin.
“Some people are struggling to catch up from the COVID,” said Eduadro. “And they are still struggling.”
The Milwaukee father of three small children has had to use the free lunch program in the past. He says the cost is not much for one day, but over a few weeks for three children, it is a lot for his family. He supports universal meals so families don’t have to worry if they suddenly find themselves facing a hardship like he did.
“We don’t have to spend the money at home for the food, so they can eat here for free. Especially when you have three small children, it adds up,” said Eduardo.
But not everyone agrees. During a school board meeting in Waukesha in August, some community members argued that the free meals should not be given to all children. Instead, only for the children who qualified.
"It is fascinating to me that we have some people advocating for free things when we have means,” said a parent who did not give her name.
The board originally voted to become the only school district in the state to turn down federal benefits giving all kids access to free lunches. Supporters of that vote argued it is part of getting back to normal, after the pandemic turned lives upside down. While the board eventually reversed its decision, parents still worry about the impact it could have on the future.
"I think if you have your own children in the schools and you have the means to feed them, you should feed them,“ said another unnamed woman.
The Hunger Task Force is a non-profit that serves families facing food insecurities. Director Sherrie Tussler says one in six Wisconsin kids face hunger every day. The need is even greater in Milwaukee.
"One in four kids. So that means you wake up this morning and within a mile of your house, probably [one in four children don't] have food on the table. And that's not right,” said Tussler.
She says for many kids, their only hot, healthy meal comes at school. And the stigma that comes with qualifying for free meals hurts students.
“They may get a different meal. They may be served at a different time or arrive early to get their school breakfast, which is not the most dignified thing when you are a kid. We like to see equal treatment of all children,” said Tussler.
Right now, California and Maine are the only two states in the country that provide free meals to children, regardless of their family’s income.
If Wisconsin did the same thing, what would that cost? A typical school lunch in Wisconsin costs $3.70, according to Department of Public Instruction data. Before the pandemic during the 2017-2018 school year, it cost the state $138 million to feed needy students in Wisconsin free or reduced price lunches.
Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore has sponsored a bill that would permanently provide free meals to all children in school regardless of a parent’s income. Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman says it is too expensive and unnecessary.
“It would just drive the next generation into debt and actually accelerate inflation in areas of food and other places,” said Grothman.
Grothman says if the federal government provides meals, it decreases the role of a parent in raising their child and puts it further on the government.
“There is a variety of things that you association with your parents doing for you and there is a variety of ways parents show their love and attention. If you permanently say the government, which is what this bill wants to do, that the government is responsible for feeding the children breakfast, lunch or dinner, you are just changing that relationship for the worse,” said Grothman.
If the bill proposed to Congress passes, all students across the country would be provided free meals at school.