Wisconsin school board reverses on opting out of free meals

WAUKESHA, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin school district has reversed a decision to leave a federal free meals program following widespread criticism and loud protests from parents and others.

Waukesha school board members said they received threats in the wake of national attention after voting to opt out of the program that was providing free breakfast and lunch to all students in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The board voted 5-4 on Monday to reverse course while parents and others packed the meeting room and two overflow rooms.

Board member Karin Rajnicek said after the board’s previous vote to end the free program that it made it easy for families to “become spoiled.” Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for business services, said he feared there would be a “slow addiction” to the service.

Even without the program, Waukesha students from low-income families still would have been able to apply for free or reduced-price meals under the traditional National School Lunch Program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to extend the Seamless Summer Option during the pandemic to offer free meals year-round has allowed for more COVID-safe practices by eliminating the need to collect payments and allowing meals to be served more easily in classrooms or outside.

The decision also allowed students to be fed regardless of their ability to pay, qualify, persuade their parents to fill out forms or withstand possible stigma associated with qualifying.

Of the 97% of Wisconsin school districts that were eligible, Waukesha was the only one to opt out of the extension this school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Some board members said if they voted to reverse course, it would be giving in to a “hateful mob” and giving over power to the federal government, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

“It’s time for parents and community members to start paying attention to the forces at work here,” board member Kelly Piacsek said. “When the federal government is responsible for feeding all students at all times regardless of need, they have ultimate authority and we don’t need local school boards anymore.”

Piacsek, who was interrupted by applause as she spoke, said it wasn’t “about food anymore,” but about national influences on local school boards.

Board member Anthony Zenobia accused administrators of asking for the change of course “because of intimidation and threats.” Like Piacsek, he opposed using more federal funds for meals.

“If it’s food and free lunch today, it will be forced masking, forced whatever-we-want-to-do in schools because the mob will have the power to tell us what to do,” Zenobia said.

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