The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A school district briefly opted out of a free-meals program, citing a desire to return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’

A worker cleans a middle school cafeteria. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of the article had a headline that incorrectly attributed the statement that students could “become spoiled” by a free-lunch program to the Waukesha, Wis., school board. The article also misrepresented the remarks of Karin Rajnicek. The article has been corrected, and a quote contextualizing Rajnicek's comment has been added. The article was originally published Aug. 27. On Aug. 30, the school board rescinded its decision and voted to use the federal Seamless Summer Option program through the 2021-2022 school year.

With two girls in elementary school and a mother who is a teacher, the Dringenburg household in a Milwaukee suburb had been joyous and excited about back-to-school season — until this year, when the Waukesha School District board decided to opt out of a federally funded program that would give free meals to all students regardless of family income.

The board voted June 9 to return to the pre-pandemic National School Lunch Program, which offers free and reduced-price lunches to students who apply and receive federal money for them. Waukesha was the only eligible school district in the state to eschew the funding.

Although Dave Dringenburg’s children had never qualified for the National School Lunch Program, he said the decision angered and disappointed him because officials “seem to be out of touch with the community’s needs.” It also led to an opportunity, he said, to advocate for change in a city where demographics and attitudes are changing rapidly.

“We’re determined to make Waukesha as good as it can be, starting with something as easy as feeding kids,” he said. “This is a way to not only connect to other parents but also of realizing that change is possible — it’s just a matter of being together to do it.”

The Alliance for Education in Waukesha, about 900 parents and teachers who connected over social media, has pressed the district to switch back to the “universal” or free-for-everyone meals after board members decried the program’s potential to produce an “addiction” to the service — a stigma that some experts have disproved. Their efforts come amid a coronavirus pandemic with economic effects that are hurting families across the nation.

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According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 4,249 students in the Waukesha School District qualified for free and reduced-price meals in 2018-2019 — 36 percent of the student body.

All school districts that had participated in the National School Lunch Program were eligible for the Seamless Summer Option. Of Wisconsin’s eligible 408 districts, Waukesha was the only one choosing to opt out, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. All of the state’s public schools adopted the universal meal program in March 2020, the nascent days of the pandemic.

Like Dringenburg, Karen Fraley does not depend on government assistance to feed her children, but her family’s past experiences with unemployment, she said, made her aware of difficulties other households may face.

“It comes from just caring about the other members of our community,” said Fraley, a mother of two students in the district. “Even if it’s not my kid who needs that food, it’s just a matter of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding that we all need to take care of each other.”

“The district really does have some great programs,” she said, “but the board definitely does seem out of touch with people.”

In June, the board voted to forgo the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service’s extension of the Seamless Summer Option, a program to provide free meals to all students through June 30, 2022, because the pandemic was expected to burden some children’s nutrition.

“The covid-19 public health and economic crisis has highlighted the essential role that school meals play in addressing childhood hunger,” Alan Shannon, a spokesman for the Food and Nutrition Service, said in an email to The Washington Post. He highlighted the universal program’s lack of application as a victory for families and for local authorities who otherwise would be tasked with processing them.

Forgoing the Seamless Summer Option, Shannon added, could mean a loss of revenue for the Waukesha School District. The reimbursement for schools operating under the universal meal program is $4.32, he said, and the National School Lunch Program’s is $3.90 for free meals and $3.59 for reduced-price meals.

The Waukesha district, which serves 14,000 students, implemented the Seamless Summer Option last academic year, but its school board members decided to return to the free and reduced-price option, some citing a desire to return to pre-pandemic operations. A document from the board outlined a worry about the program’s effects on applications for the National School Lunch Program after the universal offering expires.

“As we get back to whatever you want to believe normal means, we have decisions to make,” Joseph Como Jr., president of the school board, said at the June meeting. “I would say this is part of normalization.”

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Karin Rajnicek, a school board member, opposed the program.

“Can we just get back to: If I have children, I should be able to provide for them, and if I can’t, there is help for them?” she said. “It’s really easy to get sucked into and to become spoiled and then to just think it’s not my problem anymore, it’s everyone else’s problem to feed my children.”

Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for business services, said there could be a “slow addiction” to the service.

Other members noted that students had forgone meals funded by the National School Lunch Program in previous years. Jess Huinker, an executive assistant for the district, said she had noticed that some did not eat during school because they either did not qualify for free or reduced-price options or because their parents did not submit applications.

“We have seen kids that don’t eat,” she said.

The discussion underscores a decades-old debate in public economics, said Ioana Marinescu, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. The importance people place on “work and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” she said, fuels concerns that are often exaggerated.

According to Marinescu, the Seamless Summer Option does not require anything in return from students. Because participants do not have to prove that their families have lower incomes, she said, there is not an incentive to rely on these programs.

“If anything, it’s the opposite effect,” she said. “The one that’s based on conditions because it’s required to have low income might create the disincentives the board is talking about, but the universal one is less likely to create disincentives.”

The income families do not spend on school lunches, Marinescu said, can be poured into finding better job opportunities and into community improvement. Research by Jessie Handbury, one of Marinescu’s colleagues at Pennsylvania, and Sarah Moshary, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, shows that one of these programs’ indirect effects is lower grocery costs.

Marinescu said moving to a universal program can provide further advantages: giving a meal to children whose families do not qualify but would still benefit and those who are deterred from filling the application because of the stigma.

Chrissy Sebald, a soccer coach and foster parent, was overjoyed last year with the district’s decision to give a free meal to all students. It meant her foster children could avoid some awkward conversations.

“Kids called them out for getting the different meals and asked them, ‘Why do you get lunch every day?’ ” she said. “When it was free for everyone, you never had to have that conversation because everyone had access to it. So I really appreciated that it evened out the playing field in a way.”

The reversal, she said, was unfair — especially to those families who live paycheck-to-paycheck but do not qualify for the aid.

At the June meeting, the school board’s treasurer, Patrick McCaffery, said students who could not afford meals would be able to qualify under the traditional program.

“Our administrative team has never let a large amount of kids fall between the cracks, and it’s not going to happen next year,” McCaffery said.

Eight board members did not reply to requests for comment from The Post.

After two months of calls, petitions and rallies, the Alliance for Education in Waukesha celebrated next week’s meeting.

Still, Sebald lamented that it had taken so much effort from parents to bring it to fruition.

“We’re all hopeful, but part of me still is sad that it came to this,” she said.

At Dringenburg’s house, parents and children were filling their last days of vacation by crafting posters for a rally planned for Friday in front of the district office, one he said would hopefully bring about more than just free meals for Waukesha’s public schools.

“We’re expecting about 100 people, not only parents and teachers but also community members,” he said. “That just goes to show the power that concerned parents can have when we come together with a firm goal.”