By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Recently, while preparing for my day, I was listening to local talk radio. The host was enthralled in a lofty debate with listeners and it was getting heated. As I tried to figure out the subject matter, my mind was racing. What now? Another reckless driving incident, a political scandal, another U.S. Senate candidate dropping out of the race? I leaned in so I wouldn’t miss the next caller and could get in on the discussion. Just as I got close a caller defiantly declared that the mock chicken legs served when he was in grade school were absolutely his reason for attending class some days! The back and forth was about school lunch. Callers chimed in on which was best, pizza or the mock chicken. As I laughed, I had to admit the mock chicken legs was the hands down winner.
Listening to adult callers, reminisce about school lunch, it brought to mind the fact that a major school lunch initiative had ended this past June 30th. If you don’t have children or school age family members attending K-12 classes throughout the state, you may have missed this story all together. However there are families who know all too well, that something major and meaningful has just been changed in their child’s school lunch program.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and childcare institutions were allowed to serve meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option, which is usually only available during the summer months. Offered to help families in need of assistance, while Safer at Home orders, virtual schooling, or social distancing protocols were in place at school lunches were provided to all families to ensure that children had healthy and consistent food. These meals were made available to every child, regardless of family income. As of 6 weeks ago, this program is has come to a halt.
However, if your child attends Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) or most charter and private schools, they likely participate in the Community Eligibility program for school lunch. This allows students of these schools to receive free breakfast and lunch. Our children have benefited from this program for a number of years. Whereas, other families and children have not been so fortunate. Many neighboring municipalities’ schools utilize income-based eligibility criteria to determine whether free or reduced lunch, is possible. `
As a result, we have seen any number of issues crop up with youth accessing a nutritional meal. Whether past due lunch accounts resulting in a child being denied a lunch or provided with a cheese sandwich, we know that children have been provided lesser quality meals. Last session, I co-authored the senate companion to AB 84, to ensure that no child, in a Wisconsin public school, would be the victim of “lunch shaming”. We are aware that these incidents have occurred in school districts, both in Wisconsin and around the country. The shaming includes having trays taken away while students were eating, being given a cold lunch vs. hot, or being told to step out of the lunch line and more.
Bottom line, COVID-19 exposed a number of flaws, issues, and disparities in our systems. It proved that families, even those that had been financially stable, benefited from the Seamless Summer lunch program. As schools resume charging for lunches, I pray that no child will ever miss a meal because of an unpaid balance. Every youth deserves a mock chicken leg memory!