The COVID-19 pandemic forced students to pack up their bags and switch from whiteboards to laptops.
Empty schools meant empty cafeterias.
Until the pandemic, Jana Goodman, a mother of three and longtime resident of Waukesha, Wisconsin, never used free school lunches. Even though she says her family was always “one broken down car away from a disaster,” her only school-age child at the time, Jacob, did not qualify for free and reduced price meals.
Then the pandemic sent the Goodmans’ finances into a tailspin. After 15 years in the medical field as an administrative employee, she was furloughed for most of the summer in 2020. Her husband, who works three jobs, saw income from his most profitable gig as a DJ plummet as people stayed home. To hold onto their house and to build a strong financial base for their children’s future, the Goodmans used any assistance they could to stay afloat.
“The free meals was a huge one, because it may not seem like it day to day, but lunch money adds up,” Goodman says, adding that the family continued picking up the meals through the summer of 2021.
With roughly 1 in 5 children facing food insecurity in Wisconsin, the situation quickly became dire for families like the Goodmans already struggling to pay their bills before the pandemic.
Schools quickly pivoted to fill the gap thanks to federal waivers that allowed districts to run more flexible food service programs. One key waiver permitted schools to opt into federal programs normally restricted by income-based eligibility, allowing them to serve free meals to all students.
The Seamless Summer Option, along with similar federal programs, gave schools, even those meeting virtually, the ability to provide free meals for all students during the pandemic.
What started out as an emergency relief provision has since turned into a nationwide experiment — one testing the benefits and costs of offering universal free meals to an unprecedented number of U.S. students, regardless of family income.
In recent months, universal free meals have garnered approval from schools, anti-hunger advocates, and legislators across Wisconsin who argue that breakfast and lunch — like textbooks — should be available at no cost to any K-12 student.
But the federal waiver that permitted universal free school meals expired June 30, and legislation to extend or permanently implement a free meals program has stalled at the state and federal level, leaving an uncertain future for free school meals in Wisconsin.
And some elected officials here strongly object to the idea. The Waukesha School District, where Goodman’s son attends school, became the epicenter of that debate nationally, when for a brief time it was the only district in Wisconsin to reject free meals for all.
Universal school meals
In 2019, 39 percent of children qualified for free or reduced price lunch across the 424 Wisconsin school districts participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition programs, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. The abrupt halt to school lunches during the pandemic was a blow to many of these families who relied on those meals.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Judi Bartfeld says the number of food insecure children across the country grew during the first year of the pandemic — and in Wisconsin, that number was already higher than the national average. Bartfeld calls school meals “clearly an area where more can be done.”
For the 2021-22 school year, every school in the state — except briefly, Waukesha — chose to offer universal free meals, says Karrie Isaacson, the school nutrition assistant director for the state Department of Public Instruction.
The only exceptions were low-income districts, schools and other child care institutions already providing free meals through other federal programs such as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). That includes Milwaukee Public Schools and most private and charter schools in Wisconsin’s biggest city, and several Madison public schools.
Even though the federal free meals waiver had expired and SSO will not be available to all schools for the 2022-23 school year, schools that are eligible to participate in the CEP program will be able to continue offering student meals at no charge. Most other schools will likely revert to the National School Lunch Progam, which offers free and reduced meals to students who qualify.
The spokesman for the Madison school district did not respond to Isthmus’ request for information on the status of free and reduced-price meals in Madison’s schools.
Bartfeld says universal free meals help struggling families because they do not have to qualify or fill out paperwork. The result is more children eating at school, kids being less likely to skip breakfast and some improvement in school attendance, she said.
Fewer administrative hoops
Following the expansion of free meals during the pandemic, DPI nutrition consultant Kirsten Homstad says schools cited a decrease in administrative burdens since they did not have to keep track of students’ free or reduced status.
Says Bartfeld, “It frees up their (schools’) own resources from having to be gatekeepers and lets them just feed the kids and really treat food just like anything else that you get as part of the school day.”
It also addressed the issue of unpaid lunch funds. About three-quarters of the school districts in the national School Nutrition Association 2019 report said they had unpaid student meal debt.
Free meals also help reduce “lunch shaming.” One example is alternative cheaper meals, like cheese sandwiches, that students are sometimes given when the money in their school meal account runs out.
After getting a trial run during the pandemic, Isaacson says there is broad support in Wisconsin schools to continue free meals for all. UW-Madison historian Andrew Ruis says this isn’t surprising.
“Significant emergencies like the Great Depression (and) the COVID-19 pandemic often change people’s views about what is possible from a social or political standpoint,” Ruis says. “I think there’s a real chance that universal school meals will be realized on a broader scale than they currently are.”
Support grows for free meals
But Isaacson says funding is the main barrier to a permanent free meals program.
For all food service programs, federal funds only reimburse the cost of meals served to students eligible for free meals. This means schools must pay for the costs, such as labor and food, above the provided federal assistance, which Bartfeld says can make it difficult for schools to take advantage of federal programs, even free meal programs like CEP.
Wisconsin’s proposed Healthy School Meals for All Act seeks to fill in the gap by providing additional state funds to reimburse schools that offer free meals to all students. Assembly Bill 805 was introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature in January, co-authored by Rep. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay, Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, and 28 other Assembly Democrats.
The bill also incentivizes schools, public and private, to participate in both the federal breakfast and lunch programs in exchange for guaranteed full reimbursement for all free meals served.
National school meal program expert Jennifer Gaddis, who collaborated on aspects of the legislation, said higher participation rates could drive down costs for schools by lowering the cost per meal of production.
Still, the total cost of the bill is uncertain, according to a fiscal estimate from the DPI.
The legislation already has a statewide campaign called Healthy School Meals for All Wisconsin and is supported by 50 school, church and charitable organizations across the state.
While the measure did not make it out of committee this session, Hong — who calls free meals a “no brainer” — says the bill’s journey is far from over. The same could be said about the larger debate over whether to provide free meals for all students regardless of income.
Waukesha’s battle over free meals
The Waukesha’s school district was the only one in Wisconsin to opt out of the Seamless Summer Option for the 2021-22 school year. Initially, the Board of Education voted 9-0 to revert to the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced price lunch to students based on income eligibility.
The Alliance for Education in Waukesha led the charge to change the vote, drafting press releases, hosting rallies, and generating local and national media attention, which prompted threats against some board members and spurred media inquiries from as far away as Moscow.
Dave Dringenburg, a member of the Alliance and a father of two daughters in the district, says the board’s decision was out of touch with the community, where nearly one-third of the district’s 11,766 students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2019.
After the board’s decision hit the national news, former board member Greg Deets says he received at least 500 emails from around the world. Deets’ original rationale behind opting out of free meals was the dropping COVID-19 case numbers and the ability to to return to the free meals program if need be. Other members agreed.
But what he learned in the emails changed his mind and reversed his vote. A narrow majority of the board came to the same conclusion, voting 5-4 on Aug. 30, 2021, to keep the free meal program through the 2021-22 school year.
Several board members, however, made it clear they do not support free meals for all.
At the meeting where the decision was reversed, school board member Kelly Piacsek said the SSO was “wasteful by design,” noting students who don’t need the program can’t pay for meals even if they want to. She said Waukesha should not cede its authority to the federal government, likening the issue to the controversy over teaching young children about race and privilege.
“I believe it was important to make sure all children are fed,” said school board member Joseph Como, who voted in favor of the SSO option at the followup meeting. “I also believe that this program should not exist forever, and this board needs to make sure it does not continue forever.”
Future murky for school food service
As the June 30 expiration date approached, Congress passed a bipartisan bill, Keep Kids Fed Act, which temporarily increases school meal reimbursements. But it rejected the USDA’s recommendation to extend the free meals waiver for another year.
States including Maine and California have already passed legislation to ensure free meals for all students in their state budgets. Bartfeld isn’t so hopeful here in Wisconsin, noting the “very polarized” nature of the state.
Deets may be proof of that. He lost his school board seat in the April election along with two other incumbents to three Republican-backed candidates in the officially nonpartisan race. Deets says he thinks school meals were a “piece” of the reason he was ousted.
For now, Goodman is preparing to face a school year without free meals for her two children now in school. The family finances have still not bounced back from the pandemic. And with food prices rising, she is bracing for a “scary time” of deciding between buying groceries — and paying other household bills.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch is the news arm of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.