Without universal free lunch, Wisconsin school districts are seeing some students skip meals

Karen Fochs spends much of her work week visiting the kitchens and cafeterias of the Wausau School District. As the Director of School Nutrition Services in the Central District of Wisconsin, she enjoys making sure meals provided by the school are well received.

But this year, she noticed something disturbing, and it had nothing to do with what was handed out on the cafeteria trays. More and more students are forgoing meals because they cannot afford them.

“The need is there. It’s bubbling just below the surface,” she said. “(Students) want to eat in our cafeterias, they want this food… But again, we have all these rules in place about reduced and free lunches.”

She points to the end of Universal Free Lunches — a pandemic-era federally funded program that expired on June 30 — as the cause.

“It’s like we just went from a pandemic to no pandemic,” Fochs said. “There is no exception or compassion yet to know that children are not being fed at home.”

The start of the 2022-23 school year marked the first time in two years that parents and guardians had to apply for free or reduced-price meals based on income. Federal waivers during the pandemic made all students eligible to receive both free breakfast and lunch.

Democrats and US Department of Agriculture leaders have tried to extend the waivers to this school year, but the attempts have not gotten past Congress.

For Fochs, that meant hearing devastating stories.

“The nurse at one of our colleges emailed me very concerned about four students who were eating in the school pantry during the lunch hour. And the pantry supervisor must telling those students that they can’t eat there anymore either because the supplies are dwindling,” she said.

Fochs also told a story about a family’s application being denied because it was $100 over the qualifying income for discounted meals. One of these students will have to give up renting a violin this year to pay for school food.

“It broke my heart, because I thought, ‘How many other students, families, are making that choice? ‘” Fochs said. “Are we going to lose extremely talented kids, musicians, athletes… based on the reduced meal plan that’s no longer available to them because they don’t qualify?”

According to the state’s Department of Public Instruction, or DPI, the 2022-23 annual income threshold for a household of four for free meals is $36,075. A household of four must earn $51,338 or less to qualify for discounted meals.

Some families are automatically eligible for free meals without having to apply. This includes families participating in Foster Care, FoodShare, W-2 Cash Benefits, Medicaid, or the Indian Reservation Food Program.

Some schools and districts in Wisconsin are also eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision, which enables very poor schools and districts to provide free meals to all students. In 2019, the districts of Milwaukee, Beloit, and Bayfield were just a few of the districts in which each school was registered.

But as Fochs notes, this still excludes many families.

“Of 1,000 students (submitting) income applications (in Wausau), 421 actually qualified,” Fochs said. “They just don’t follow that guideline.”

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At Stevens Point, the district hopes to ease the transition by offering free breakfast to all students this year. The district also provides a free lunch to any child who qualifies for discounted meals. As of Thursday, 42% of Stevens Point students were enrolled in the free or reduced-price meal program.

Sarah O’Donnell, director of communications for the Stevens Point Area Public School District, said using this year as a transition period will help the district buy time to continue communicating with families about necessary paperwork. .

“One of the things the pandemic showed us was just the impact and the importance of that school day…and access to healthy food was one of those things that I think really shifted to the foreground,” she said.

Stigma around free and discounted meal returns

Joshua Guckenberg, director of food and nutrition for the Eau Claire area school district, said that aside from a few hiccups, this school year has been more of a return to normal.

He said there was an increase in the number of students using the free lunch program over the past two years, but it was not drastically different from pre-pandemic levels. What he’s noticed is that the stigma surrounding free and discounted meals has returned – after seemingly disappearing over the past two years.

“We’re separating kids here into three categories: free, reduced, and paid. And as much as we try to keep that as private as possible. Kids talk, kids see other kids,” Guckenberg said. “Even though I’m a paid student, I was late, and I eat breakfast just because I’m really hungry, it could have the negative connotation that I only eat breakfast because I got free meals.”

“The only way to get rid of it would be to offer it as a free-for-all program,” he added.

Some states such as California and Maine have decided to fund universal free meals for students in their state budgets.

Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin attempted to do something similar, introducing the Wisconsin Healthy School Meals for All Act in November. But the bill failed to pass the GOP-controlled legislature.

Eau Claire’s Guckenberg said the timing of statewide or federal action is even more serious with inflation and the hardships many families face.

“Free meals for all, no matter how much money you make, that’s just one important thing we need to do,” he said. “I just don’t see a lot of movement and I kinda wish there was some.”

Fochs in Wausau agreed.

“It would be great to see how students could thrive in a world where meals were there for all students, regardless of income level,” she said. “A nutritious meal that contains the right amount of nutrients to help them grow, which also helps them learn and succeed in becoming healthy, participating adults.”

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