Camden, a Cottage Grove second-grader, asking DPI Superintendent Jill Underly questions at the press conference. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Jill Underly and Democratic lawmakers renewed calls on Monday for Wisconsin to provide free school meals to all students, which they say would improve student wellbeing and academic outcomes, ease financial burdens for families and support Wisconsin’s local economies.
Underly, state lawmakers and other stakeholders highlighted the proposal along with two other provisions included in Gov. Tony Evers’ two-year budget proposal meant to invest in school meals at a breakfast press conference — which featured fresh yogurt parfaits — in the Cottage Grove Elementary School cafeteria.
“When I was a teacher, when I was elementary school principal, the Monday morning after the weekend or after break, you would see kids lining up outside the school waiting for it to open, just so that they could get their breakfast because for many kids, this is the only full meal that they will have,” Underly said. “We have to get behind feeding kids. I don’t understand how we could not.”
Evers’ budget proposal would dedicate $120 million in the second year of the budget to creating the “Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids” program, which would provide free school breakfast and lunch for all Wisconsin students, regardless of income levels.
“We know that not only does student health and academic achievement improve, but we also know that we can put a lot of more dollars back into our local food and farm economies and we can save time and energy of parents and other caregivers, who might be packing lunches for their students, and we can create a lot better environments in terms of school climates, when all students are participating in school lunch programs,” Jennifer Gaddis, a professor at UW-Madison, said at the press conference.
Many Wisconsin schools offered free school lunches to students during the pandemic when federal funding was available. The federal program expired in August 2022. While certain high-poverty schools could continue providing school meals to all, most schools have reverted to charging full price for students that aren’t eligible or enrolled in the free and reduced meal programs.
Research from the Food Research & Action Center has found that receiving free or reduced-price school lunches lessens food insecurity and poverty, improves student outcomes and positively impacts student mental health. However, there are relatively strict guidelines for who can benefit.
According to current guidelines, students in a household of four with an income of $36,075 per year or less qualify for free school meals. Students in a family of four with an income between $36,075.01 and $51,338 are eligible for reduced school meals.
Underly said that of families that do qualify, some may not apply due to how intensive the application process is. She said removing the application process would ease a burden for families.
“A lot of people don’t apply for it because it does require you to disclose a lot of your own personal financial history, and… getting families to apply for it when you know that they would benefit from it is really difficult because they just don’t want to provide that information,” Underly said. “If we eliminated that application process and just provided meals to all kids, it’s not only making sure that families who would qualify are getting the meals, it just means that the kids are going to be eating and they’re going to be successful.”
Some families — those participating in foster care, FoodShare, W-2 cash benefits, Medicaid or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations — are automatically enrolled without having to apply.
Free school meals could also reduce the anxiety and ostracization that students who get free and reduced lunch or deal with food insecurity may face. Catherine Capellaro, a Madison writer and musician, recalled feeling shame mixed with anger when her son, Leo, told her his school made him give up the lunch that he had been served one day in 2013 because of an insufficient balance on his lunch account.
“They took his lunch away, and perhaps threw it away and offered him a sandwich,” Capellaro said. She said her family lived a working, middle class lifestyle, benefiting from BadgerCare, FoodShare as well as free and reduced-lunch programs at the time. “So they offered him something but all of my momma bear instincts and all of my social justice instincts were inflamed. What are you talking about? You took away his lasagna and offered him a peanut butter sandwich. That is so wrong.”
Capellaro said the experience is not a “deep trauma” for her son, who alongside his twin brother graduated from East High School several years ago, but it left a significant impression on her. “I don’t even know if he remembers but it just made this marker in my mind that we’ve got to figure out a better way to do this,” she said.
“I do not want my kid or any kid to feel like they wouldn’t want to go into the line because of that experience of being singled out as someone that couldn’t afford to eat the best thing that was offered,” Capellaro said.
Three states — California, Maine and Colorado — have recently made universal school lunches permanent policy, while around 20 are discussing, drafting or considering potential legislation.
Evers also proposed $9 million for reimbursing schools for breakfasts at 15 cents per meal, extending current eligibility to independent charter schools and other schools operated by the Department of Public Instruction.
Another budget provision would work to give schools incentives to support Wisconsin’s farmers, food producers and local economies. Evers wants to provide $2.75 million in the second budget year for an enhanced 10-cent per meal reimbursement for meals that include locally sourced foods.
Proponents said the money would help boost Wisconsin’s local economies.
Maggie Sanna, nutrition director for Monona Grove Schools Nutrition, said the proposal would help the district continue partnering with local producers, something that they expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic with federal funding.
“Implementation of the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids initiative would grow school nutrition programs and ensure that our students and staff are able to thrive,” Sanna said. “Budgeting additional dollars to support local foods helps simplify the complexity of our financial balance. It eliminates an obstacle that doesn’t need to stand between students and fresh local products.”
For Evers’ proposals to be implemented, they will need to be included in the budget written by the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee, which could pose an obstacle. Chairs of the committee have criticized the amount of spending in Evers’ budget proposal, and said they don’t plan to include any large policy changes in the version of the budget, which will eventually be sent to Evers for approval.
Republicans also chose not to implement a universal school lunch program in the past. Democrats proposed legislation in 2022 that would have provided state funds to reimburse schools that provide free school lunches to all students, but that legislation never left the Republican-controlled committee.
“Making sure that every kid has access to a healthy breakfast means that every kid has access to higher academic success,” Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said at the press conference. “Republicans who want to see academic success increase in the state of Wisconsin — this is an easy way to do it.”
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