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Start of new school year causing concern for Wisconsin families after universal free lunch program expires

The program ended after federal funding passed during the early part of the pandemic and was not renewed in the latest spending bill.
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Posted at 5:59 PM, Sep 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-12 19:39:53-04

MILWAUKEE — Ever since the start of the pandemic, Waukesha mom of three, Becky Gilligan, has relied on the nationwide universal lunch program to provide free meals to her children at school. That program expired in June. Now that school has started again, Gilligan is doing her best to provide the money her kids need to buy lunches.

"My son doesn't really eat lunch at school so I don't have to worry about him as much, but I put in $50 for both girls," said Gilligan. "​It's a lot of money that I really don't have."

The program ended after federal funding passed during the early part of the pandemic and was not renewed in the latest spending bill.

"This is something we're going to have to let go of right now," said Stacy Dean, the Undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

To help ease the burden, USDA officials are reminding families that if they meet the eligibility requirements, they can apply online to receive free or reduced lunch for their children.

"We don't want any eligible child to miss out on the benefits of this program," said Dean.

However, the problem many Wisconsin families, like Gilligan's, face is they make just enough to not qualify for the assistance. But they still struggle to make sure their kids get fed at school.

"I know that I don't meet the income requirements, but, even for people who are middle-class, it's still hard to pick up this extra expense every month," said Gilligan.

That's why the Hunger Task Force wants people to know there's still help out there like their food share and W.I.C. programs.

"The Hunger Task Force can teach them how to apply for those programs and maintain those benefits so that they don't have to worry about making ends meet," said Sherrie Tussler, the director of the Hunger Task Force.

Until then, U.S. officials say they're continuing to fight for funding to expand meal coverage to families again and provide reimbursement opportunities for schools that decided to provide free or reduced lunches to students on their own.

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