The Waukesha School District is just pulling out of a program that gave kids free lunches regardless of income. Poor kids would still get free lunches.
Have you seen the negative stories making the Waukesha School Board members look like a bunch of misers who don’t want to give kids free lunches? The truth is that kids in Waukesha will still get free meals if they are low-income.
But you wouldn’t know it from some news stories; instead, the district is being blasted in headlines nationwide. The media also fixated on a single school board member’s quote that staying in the universal program could make some families “spoiled,” truncating her full quote in a way that made it sound worse and lose context (we give you the full quote later in this article.) This has consequence; we’re hearing some board members and school officials are getting threats and being doxxed. Here’s how the Washington Post framed it:
Some of the media’s reporting on the Waukesha School District pulling out of a pandemic-related “universal” school lunch program is unfair. What some stories don’t tell readers: The Waukesha School District is just switching back to a pre-pandemic program that requires you to be impoverished to get the free lunches. Others, like the Post, provided that detail but used inflammatory headlines.
In other words, if your parent makes $300,000 a year and drives a BMW, you’re probably not going to qualify. The headlines could read, “Waukesha School District Pulls Out of Program Giving Free Lunches to Parents Who Don’t Need Them,” theoretically.
In fact, the Waukesha School District has made it pretty easy for low-income parents to still apply for free Waukesha school lunches. There’s a huge green button on the district’s website that you can’t miss:
Yes, that means that low-income kids would still get free lunches funded by the feds under the change.
The Waukesha School District is just pulling out of a program that gave kids free lunches regardless of income.
Perhaps the real question is why affluent kids, whose parents can afford it, need federally funded free lunches in other Wisconsin school districts? But no one in the media bothers to ask that question because it doesn’t match the spin. It’s clear from many of the news stories that the reporters believe all kids, regardless of income, should get free lunches paid for by taxpayers.
Some of the stories and protests have tried to come up with reasons that makes sense – for example, that some kids who need them don’t apply due to stigma or that some parents who qualify don’t bother to apply. Either way, to properly judge, readers of all stories should be told the full story.
The District Provided Details Ignored in Some News Coverage
The district has taken great pains to alert the community to the facts and context behind an issue that has led to negative headlines and protests, posting a lengthy press release.
The district is concerned that the universal free-for-all-regardless-of income program made it more likely that the district won’t have applications from low-income parents for free Waukesha school lunches for their kids. Thus, the number of applications has dropped. The district has a concern that this could affect other funding, a point that didn’t make it into many news stories.
“For example, the District’s Title One Grant allocation uses the level of free and reduced lunch participation as one of their key determinants in calculating our annual allocation,” the district noted. “…with free and reduced meal students declining, it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of need in our district.”
The district noted, “Deciding not to participate in the SFSP does not mean we are not providing for our neediest students. The District will be returning to the National School Lunch program (free/reduced lunch program) that has served students across this country for decades. We will still continue to have universal free breakfast at the schools that meet the program qualifications. We will continue to work directly with families on an individual basis.”
The district said a lot of free breakfasts ended up “in the trash,” and summer participation indicated lowering demand for free meals. There would have been a “small financial gain” to the district from staying in the universal program, though.
The district also noted that although the news stories stated that the District is the only one in the state choosing to leave (note the semantics) the universal free lunch program, that does not mean it’s the only one that doesn’t participate in it.
There are districts (or just their high schools) in the state “that don’t participate in any federal lunch program that will likely not participate in the SFSP (universal free lunch),” says the district.
You would get a very different impression if you saw this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline on Google:
The actual story was better, explaining that 97% of school districts were eligible for universal free lunch. When you clicked on the story, you got a more accurate headline: “Every eligible Wisconsin school district is providing all students free meals this year. Except Waukesha.”
The Biased Media Coverage About The Waukesha School Lunch Program
Some of the media, but not all, have correctly explained that low-income kids will still get free Waukesha school lunches, although they left out some of the district’s other points.
For example, Wisconsin Public Radio reported it correctly, writing, “The board voted unanimously in June to return to the National School Lunch Program, which requires families to fill out an application to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Board members said going back to this program will still provide help to the families who need it.” Patch got it right too.
Another important detail, left out of many, if not most, stories, though. According to the Associated Press, “In addition, as was practice before the pandemic, young students in grades lower than high school who come to school without a packed lunch, money or an accepted lunch program application, may be given cheaper meals of cheese sandwiches.” That’s in addition to the fact they can still apply for nutritious free lunches if their families apply for the pre-pandemic program. The Journal Sentinel reported that guardians would be charged for these, but it would ensure that no kid goes hungry.
Got that? So not only can low-income kids get free Waukesha school lunches, the district may still feed kids a lunch who don’t apply or who come to school with no lunch, regardless of income, if they are in a grade lower than high school.
But you wouldn’t know any of this if you were a reader of this online story by WISN-TV, which reported: “Some parents want Waukesha schools to reconsider a decision to turn down federal funding for free school lunches.” Nowhere in this story does it bother to mention that low-income kids would still qualify for free Waukesha school lunches.
WTMJ-TV ran an online story from the Associated Press that similarly did not mention that low-income kids would still qualify for free Waukesha school lunches (media outlets sometimes shorten AP stories to fit their own news holes, but they shouldn’t do so in a way that twists stories by removing key context).
WTMJ-TV’s story, which the station shared on Facebook, generated a round of predictable angry comments from people, who wrote things like, “This is the most heartless thing i have ever heard! Feeding children is so important.” It does sound heartless the way it was reported, but it left out key information that changes the story.
However, one reader got it anyway, writing in that comment thread, “This article is poorly reported. This switch in meal programs still provides free meals to low income families. The old program provided free breakfast and lunch to ALL the students. Disappointed in the reporting- makes me question what is being left out of other news…” Another discerning reader got it too, writing, “I personally have no problem paying for my son’s lunch. But for those families who can’t, there are still programs you can apply for. I feel bad taking something for free, when someone needs it more.”
That didn’t bother one woman, who responded, “all students should be fed without making distinctions.”
Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan wrote on Twitter, “Embarrassing story from my state. The Waukesha School District decided to stop giving free lunch to kids. Largely a GOP area, the measure is a foolish MAGA political effort. The good news? We have over 400 districts & this is the only one doing this.” His tweet is false. The Waukesha School District has NOT decided to stop giving free Waukesha school lunch to low-income kids.
What Was the Full Quote Behind the ‘Spoiled’ Remark?
Some stories that did provide some relevant details still opted for biased headlines that made the Waukesha School District look terrible on the national stage, with many replicating a comment from a single school board member who said giving universal school lunches even to rich kids meant families would “become spoiled.” The AP turned this falsely into multiple school board members making this comment, when it was one.
“Wisconsin school board blasted for saying kids might get ‘spoiled’ by free lunch,” read the headline in the New York Post. The Huffington Post snarled, “Wisconsin School District Rejects Universal Free Lunches So Kids Won’t Get ‘Spoiled.'” Daily Beast huffed, “Wisconsin School District Ditches Free Meals So Students Don’t ‘Become Spoiled.'” The Daily Beast story started with this line, “In a cruel move that has shocked many parents, the Waukesha School District Board opted earlier this year to end its federally funded program to give free meals to all student…”
But what did the board member really say? Here is the FULL quote from that board member, per Patch. Many stories mentioned only the “become spoiled” part without providing the full quote:
“I had three kids, I had them and so I’m going to feed them. I feel like that’s the responsibility of the adult,” Karin Rajnicek, a board member said. “I feel like this is a big problem, and it’s really easy to get sucked into and become spoiled and think, it’s not my problem any more, it’s everyone else’s problem to feed my children.”
National School Lunch Program
Waukesha is just reverting to the pre-pandemic National School Lunch Program. What is that?
“The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or no-cost lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946,” a fact sheet says.
Here’s who qualifies: “Children can also qualify for free or reduced price school meals based on household income and family size. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals. Schools may not charge children more than 40 cents for a reduced price lunch.”