Shelton seeks free statewide school meals
Newly introduced legislation would provide free breakfasts and lunches for participating school districts across the state
By John McCracken
State Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) introduced legislation Thursday to guarantee free school meals for all children in Wisconsin.
Shelton said the legislation, dubbed “Healthy School Meals for All,” will continue school districts’ access to free school meals since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the legislation, all school districts, including independent charter schools, private schools, tribal schools, residential care centers for children and youth, the Wisconsin Educational Services Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, would qualify.
In March of 2020, school districts across the state pivoted to virtual learning, but students still needed to eat.
A report from the statewide food insecurity organization Feeding Wisconsin estimated that one-in-eight people, including one-in-five children, experienced food insecurity in 2020.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reimbursed schools and childcare centers for free meals to all students through the 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic. The program was renewed at the beginning of August and will go through the end of the 2021-22 school year, with plans to expire June 30, 2022.
Schools can serve meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), a program usually only available in summer months, and focuses on providing fruits and vegetables, grains, milk and responsible caloric portions to children
regardless of income eligibility.
Shelton said as the program is set to expire at the end of this school year, she wants to continue the access to meals for children.
“Every school in Wisconsin that participates in the National School Breakfast and the National School Lunch Program (they have to do both) would be required to serve one free breakfast and one free lunch to every kid at no cost,” Shelton said.
Shelton said funding for free school meals would come from $2.6 billion Wisconsin is sitting on.
A June 2021 report from the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau notes that, if projects hold true, the state would have a balance of $2.6 billion in the general fund at the end of July.
Shelton was unable to provide an accurate estimate of how much free school meals would cost the state, but she said the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction will provide a fiscal estimate in the coming weeks as part of the bill’s circulation.
Shelton said participation from school districts in both aspects of the lunch and breakfast program is an important piece of the puzzle.
A 2020 report from the Food Research and Action Center lists Wisconsin as tied for worst in the number of schools that participated in the School Breakfast Program during the school year 2018-19.
“We want to use that carrot of ‘You gotta do both,’” Shelton said. “You’ve got to have both breakfast and lunch to get that carrot and to get our participation rates up.”
The ongoing federal program provides a waiver system for school districts that participate in the National Lunch Program. When the federal program expires in 2022, school districts will revert to using income-based eligibility for free or reduced meals for students.
“So if it’s free,” Shelton said, “you’re just gonna have more kids that participate which means you’re going to get a higher reimbursement which actually helps to increase the economy of scale.”
According to Green Bay Area Public Schools (GBAPS), students are currently receiving free meals through the SSO program. GBAPS took advantage of the program in 2020 and set up free meal sites at district locations across the city to feed students throughout the summer. GBAPS said in 2019, the district served 123,000 summer meals, which include breakfast and lunch.
The district doesn’t have numbers for 2020 summer meals because of the federal waiver initiating before summer officially
began, but in 2021, the district served 208,000 summer meals.
“We debate in the state often and we spend a lot of time and resources talking about how to support kids and learning and schools and public schools and academic achievement,” Shelton said, “but unfortunately, what is largely absent from that conversation has been how central hunger and food insecurity is to those issues, to academic achievement and student engagement, but also to building and supporting healthy kids in the community.”
The bill has more than 40 food-, policy- and education-based organizations who have signed on as supporters, including Feeding Wisconsin, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Wisconsin Public Health Association and the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
The bill was co-authored by State Rep. Francesa Hong (D-Madison). State Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) is leading the bill in the Senate.
John McCracken is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmcjmc451.