Skip to main content

Waukesha school board reverses decision to cut universal free meals

Waukesha school board members reversed their controversial decision to leave a federal free meals program with a split vote Monday, following national uproar and local protests. 

In an incendiary meeting with two lively overflow rooms, debate ranged from the finer points of feeding students to ideological arguments linking free meals to mask mandates and critical race theory.

Board members voted 5-4 to rescind their previous decision, and opt to participate this school year in the federally funded program that has already been providing free breakfast and lunch to all students in response to the pandemic. 

The district had been the only eligible district in the state to opt out of the program, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. 

Superintendent James Sebert asked board members to reconsider their previous decision, noting the program would help families "experiencing situational poverty due to the pandemic" who might not qualify for free meals under the district's traditional program. 

More: Every eligible Wisconsin school district is providing all students free meals this year. Except Waukesha.

Some board members said they'd received threats and been doxxed after the Washington Post reported on their choice to end the program. Some said if the board reversed course, it would be giving in to a "hateful mob" and giving over power to the federal government. 

"It's time for parents and community members to start paying attention to the forces at work here," board member Kelly Piacsek said. "When the federal government is responsible for feeding all students at all times regardless of need, they have ultimate authority and we don’t need local school boards anymore.”

Piacsek, who was interrupted by applause as she spoke, said it wasn't "about food anymore," but about national influences on local school boards. She likened the debate to those about structural racism and COVID precautions. 

"This is how we got CRT and filthy books and vaccine and mask mandates, all this stuff," she said, referring to critical race theory

Board member Anthony Zenobia accused administrators of asking for the change of course "because of intimidation and threats." Like Piacsek, he opposed using more federal funds for meals. 

"If it’s food and free lunch today, it will be forced masking, forced whatever-we-want-to-do in schools because the mob will have the power to tell us what to do," Zenobia said. 

Board members Karin Rajnicek and Corey Montiho also stood by the original decision. Rajnicek defended her previous comments about how families could become “spoiled” by receiving free meals. She said she was speaking from her own experience feeling spoiled by the meals for her children.

“The ‘spoiled’ I referred to, it’s me, it’s all of us, if we rely on the system when we can provide for ourselves,” she said. 

Other board members said most of the feedback they'd received was thoughtful and informative. They said they reconsidered their vote after learning more about how many students could go unfed. 

“I made the earlier votes without really looking at all the implications and I wasn’t really informed and I apologize for that," Greg Deets said. "The truth is that many of our students are hungry throughout the school day and we have the ability to do something about that."

Board members said they'd received calls and emails from teachers, students and families about personal experiences with hungry students. Some community members also participated in a rally with the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, holding signs and chalking, "When we aren't hungry, we learn better." 

Operators of the FOOD Pantry Serving Waukesha County and Hunger Task Force had also asked the board to reconsider the decision. 

Board President Joseph Como said the feedback opened his eyes to situations he hadn't been aware of and he changed his mind "to make sure all children are fed," though he said the program was only a temporary solution. 

"I appreciate your input very much," he said. "I eat every meal every day. I cannot relate to being hungry. I’ve been blessed.”

Board members had previously voted in June to leave the program, called the Seamless Summer Option. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had extended the program to offer free meals year-round, allowing for more COVID-safe practices by eliminating the need to collect payments and allowing meals to be served more easily in classrooms or outside. 

When board members had voted to leave the program, they planned to revert the district to the National School Lunch Program, which allows students from low-income families to apply for free or reduced-price meals. This can leave out students whose parents don't fill out the application forms or who don't qualify for free meals but also don't have money for food. 

"It’s the student that’s in the lunch line... that stands there when there isn’t money to pay the bill. It’s the student that has to go back and sit at the table," Deets said. "I think we should do whatever we can so that students in our district don’t have to experience those situations." 

All districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program were eligible to extend the Seamless Summer Option. Of the 97% of Wisconsin school districts that were eligible, Waukesha had been the only one to opt out of the extension this school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. 

Administrators previously issued a press release standing by the decision to opt out of the Seamless Summer Option, noting that it would take away incentives for families to submit information about their income -- a traditional requirement to qualify for free meals.

Without those forms, the district would not have this information on file to quickly determine eligibility for free meals if the universal program came to an end. Additionally, these forms are used to estimate the percentage of students in poverty, which determines the amount of funding received for various programs.

However, as this is an issue faced by districts across the country, federal and state officials have shared guidance about alternate ways to calculate the needed rates. 

Contact Rory Linnane at Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at