In Wisconsin, more than 400,000 people don’t have enough to eat every day–and nearly half of them are children.
One in eight school-aged kids living in Wisconsin comes from a family where food is hard to come by, while many more are living on the edge: their families can afford food, but that means cutting into their clothing budget or college savings.
Gov. Tony Evers has a solution: Provide free breakfast and lunch for every K-12 student in Wisconsin.
Before you roll your eyes and think, “Nice dream, but that will never happen,” it already did, for two school years during the pandemic. In both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, federal funding allowed all school districts across the country to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income.
Evers has proposed a similar program to be included in the next state budget. The price tag? $120 million. And Wisconsin has more than enough in its massive budget surplus to foot the bill.
“It sounds like a lot (of money),” Evers said, in a conversation with Wisconsin Public Radio. “But we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of students that this impacts across the state. For the most part, a lot of the food that goes into food service programs comes from Wisconsin farmers, and we can make that even more important.”
According to Evers’ budget summary, food insufficiency among Wisconsin households with kids jumped from 5% in the fall of 2021 to 13% in the spring of 2022.
And there’s already proof that providing free school meals doesn’t just help the lowest income students, but all students. Michael Gasper, the director of nutrition services for the Holmen School District, told WPR that when all students were offered free breakfast, 60% took advantage of it. Before the pandemic, only 25% of his students reported eating breakfast every day. Breakfast has critical, well-researched benefits like improved focus and increased metabolism, especially for students.
So what’s standing in the way? Republican lawmakers.
The GOP-led state legislature has yet to approve Evers’ 2023 budget, which includes $120 for the free lunch program. It’s unclear whether Republicans will support that measure, or back a different effort from Democrats to feed school children.
Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay), a former PE teacher, has been working to get free school meals passed in Wisconsin for two years. Last session, she introduced a bill to provide free meals, but it never even received a hearing. Whether it does in 2023 remains to be seen.
Want to see this become Wisconsin law? Click here to let your local lawmakers know!
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