What have we become in education when we deny children access to free meals?
I come to this conversation about denying young people food as someone who once led a network of charter schools and cancelled the food service contract because the food was terrible. It lacked nutritional value. It wasn’t fresh. I come to this conversation as someone who was taught about the weaponization of food through the teachings of the Black Panther Party. So, for me, children having access to food in schools is a low bar…young folks having free access to quality food should be the standard. As it turns out—neither of those are true in the Waukesha School District (Wisconsin).
On June 9 the Waukesha School District board determined that they would become the only eligible school district in Wisconsin to opt out of a federal program that would allow all children access to free meals in school, regardless of family income. That’s correct—of the 408 districts eligible for adoption of the universal meal program, Waukesha is the only one to opt out. I could spend time lamenting the rationale given by a school board member— “families will become spoiled”—but I want to call attention to those employed, not elected, to protect families and children.
According to a Washington Post (August 27, 2021) article on this issue, an assistant superintendent in the district indicated that opting into the free meal program could be a “slow addiction”. So let me understand this…someone being paid to support our children in a school district believes that access to free meals is a “slow addiction”. The pompousness and arrogance of such a statement is morally outrageous…yet here we are.
“…families will become spoiled…”
Because this is a professional space, I won’t add my actual response to reading this but want to instead call attention to the blatant ways in which Black, Latinx, and multiracial children will be disproportionately impacted by this decision, which isn’t discussed by school board members or relevant district leaders.
According to city-data.com Black, Latinx, and multiracial children are approximately 2.5 times more likely to live below the poverty line than their white peers in Waukesha. So, by default, the children attending the Waukesha Public Schools who identify as Black, Latinx, and multiracial will be disproportionately impacted by the district’s decision to opt out of a program designed to provide free meals to all children.
Not only does this decision differ from the other 407 eligible districts in Wisconsin, but it also goes against the recommendation of the state Department of Public Instruction. While their recommendation didn’t make mention of the disproportionate impact the decision would have on Black and Latinx students, they did note that the percentage of children experiencing hunger in Waukesha County has risen by almost 5% since 2019. Just so I am clear—we have witnessed an increase in children experiencing hunger in Waukesha County, yet we are going to make it more difficult for them to access food in a place where we require them to show up on a daily basis.
Let’s be clear that we are witnessing the continued marginalization of Black and Latinx children in a district that just banned discussing “controversial” issues in the classroom because they can be divisive (reported by WTMJ-TV, August 23, 2021). But the hypocrisy in the Waukesha School District goes deeper. A quick glance at the equity section of their website would lead you to believe that they support students of color as they publicly express a commitment to a Black student union and culturally relevant teaching.
Providing Black and Brown students free meal programs is a “slow addiction.”
But all is not lost in the Waukesha School District. In fact, I am excited to learn that teachers, parents, and community members have banned together to fight the good fight. Using the power of social media, a group of parents and teachers formed the Alliance for Education in Waukesha. This group of approximately 900 parents and teachers are pressing district officials to reverse their position on universal free meals. By utilizing the power of social media, a petition on Change.org and a rally in front of the district office, there will be a meeting taking place to revisit this decision.
Regardless of the initial decision and the outcome of the meeting, the organizing of the community against this absurd decision, is refreshing. It’s also a reminder of the ways in which collective action can lead to change in communities. Far too often in education we cede space on decisions about food access, and the quality of food, to school boards and the colonization of cafeterias by for-profit food companies that make billions from school districts—disproportionately doing more harm to students of color than good. It is time for educators and parents to fight for quality food for our children in the same way we fight for other things in our schools.
We must advocate for farm to school programs, scratch cooking in schools, and forcing our leaders to build teaching kitchens in schools. As a former charter school leader who ended a food service contract in support of fresh options from scratch cooking, I stand in solidarity with the Alliance for Education in Waukesha.
Dr. Robert Simmons is currently a scholar in residence and scholar of antiracist praxis in the School of Education at American University.