The Food Program in Waukesha – a Two Year Retrospective

*Note: This reflection, while written by a parent who is a member of the Alliance, is representative of the hopes and desires of the parent group, The Alliance For Education in Waukesha.- 

Two Years Ago

This week marks two years since Waukesha became the touchstone of an international discussion about feeding students in public schools around America. At that time multiple Alliance parents advocated for opting into the Seamless Summer Option, a program through the federal government that completely funded the public school lunch program. This group of parents hosted a rally as well as spoke up for families in need using various media outlets to share the message. 

The Food Rally Origin Story

“Students in the School District in Waukesha deserve to be fed like every other student in the state of Wisconsin.” That was my first thought in discovering that SDW was the only public school district in the state of Wisconsin that had opted out of the Seamless Summer Option, a federal program that fully funded breakfast and lunch programs around the country due to the COVID pandemic. Two summers ago, during “unprecedented times,” public schools throughout our country were given an opportunity: they can opt into the SSO, which will fully fund breakfast and lunch programs, leaving most families burdened with less financial obligation through a federally-funded program, or to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic, with the option of a “free and reduced” program most public schools families are accustomed to. Knowing a lot of families I personally considered “in between” – still in need of a helping hand because of the pandemic, but yet to qualify for the “free and reduced” program – I couldn’t help but advocate for the SSO. I knew so many families that would benefit from the federal help, and so I, along with quite a few other parents and community members, advocated for those families. What ensued became a national discussion – which families “deserved” to have a free meal provided by the federal government? And what was the cost of advocating for such a program? In the weeks leading up to the end of August 2021 debate, advocates in Waukesha contacted the School District of Waukesha board to encourage them to rescind a decision made at a June board meeting to opt out of the Seamless Summer Option, a program that provided meals at no additional charge to 10,000+ students throughout the district. While district leadership was led to believe they wouldn’t be alone in the decision throughout the state, it became very obvious very quickly that SDW was the sole public district in the state of Wisconsin to opt out of the program. By late August 2021 the public response was strong, to the point of a fervor. Emails and calls had not prompted a special board meeting, so I called on other parents in the Alliance to host a rally in favor of the SSO. We decided on a date – Friday, August 27, 2021, in front of the SDW Administration building. We invited advocates to take part, and the media to cover it. That day over 100 community members participated in a rally for the lunch program. It was covered by all local media outlets, in addition to a few national outlets. Word got out. “Waukesha” was a top-10 trending topic on Twitter. The spotlight was on what our school board had decided. 

The Special Board Meeting

Two board members decided to call a special board meeting on the following Monday, August 30, but, because of the publicity, all 9 board members were being attacked by people from across the country. I’ve seen a few of the emails, and some of them were completely inappropriate at best and do not reflect the values or message of the Alliance or the greater Waukesha community. Regardless, the die had been cast: Waukesha was known for withholding “free” food from some vulnerable students, and the discussion about who should receive the universal meal program was at the forefront of our community and state. 

The Vote

By Monday, Aug 30, 2021 at 9 pm the school board had made a decision to reverse their course and reinstate the SSO in Waukesha. The vote was close, 5 to 4, in favor of a return to the SSO. Personally, it was disappointing to know the vote was that close. Some board members seemed to be swayed against the SSO because of the public pressure and private attacks. From my perspective the battle was won, though: five board members became champions for the students and families who many of us considered “in between:” in spite of attacks from outside of our community, they voted to reinstate the program. Families in the district should be grateful for the boldness of previous board members Amanda Roddy, Greg Deets, Bill Baumgart, Joe Como, and current board member Patrick McCaffery. Because of their vote every student in Waukesha would have lunch provided to them for the next school year. 

Backlash against Advocacy

The cost was high, though, with attacks on board members, and attacks from local community members on my family because of my advocacy. My wife, who teaches in the district, was called in on the first day of school to her principal’s office, asking what part she had in this advocacy – my wife had no involvement; it was solely my advocacy she was getting blamed for. My wife and I also received multiple harassing messages including one from a substitute teacher in SDW and a message from a Waukesha resident stating “game on.” There were also plenty of supportive messages as community members recognized the importance of feeding our kids. However as a precaution, I contacted the Waukesha PD the night of the food rally to share my concerns of harassment. Thankfully there were no major incidents at the rally. Most importantly, the vote passed to provide meals to ALL district kids. 

Changes Since the Vote 

What has changed in the two years since the School Board’s decision on lunch? From my perspective, some good and some not-so-good. From a positive perspective, food service in our district, state and country has grown. SDW has worked hard to improve the food quality in schools. They’ve also implemented breakfast service at every school in the last two years. From my perspective, that’s a total win. Families that are struggling to provide at least have two options for meals daily. The conversation also continued beyond August of 2021, with multiple states opting to provide universal meals to all public school students. Leveling the playing field for students like this has always been the Alliance’s hope. Unfortunately that doesn’t include our state. Governor Evers proposed, in light of a massive state budget surplus, inclusion of a universal free meal program to include every public school student in the state of Wisconsin this past spring. Unfortunately other legislative leaders decided to cut this from his proposed budget, leaving our state falling behind other states implementing universal free meals for students, including our neighbors in Minnesota. Seeing these programs embraced in other states around the country leads to the question, “why not us?” 

The Alliance’s Continuing Role

The Alliance for Education in Waukesha continues to advocate for public education that is inclusive and equitable. For some those words have become a point of contention; for us they’ve become a standard: every student enrolled in public schools in Wisconsin deserves to feel welcome in the classroom, regardless of socioeconomic status, sexuality, gender, race, creed, ethnicity, and so on. Unfortunately that welcoming spirit is not true in Waukesha. We’ve seen policies enacted that work against making every student comfortable and welcomed, including the food program. The Alliance will continue to strive for ideas and actions that promote inclusion and equity, regardless of persecution and harassment of its members. For more information on how to get involved, please contact the Alliance

-Dave Dringenburg, SDW parent and member of The Alliance for Education in Waukesha