Advocates, Wisconsin Democrats pitch free school lunch for all

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(The Center Square) – Democratic lawmakers at the Wisconsin Capitol are framing free school lunches for all students as a way to get more farm fresh vegetables into schools, as a way to hire more school workers and as a way to make sure no children go hungry.

They are not, however, saying it will be cheap.

The Healthy School Meals for All Wisconsin Coalition and several Democratic lawmakers Monday pitched a plan to maximize the federal free and reduced school lunch program to cover all children in the state.

“Poverty is a policy choice, and one thing that we learned very clearly after the pandemic is having hungry kids is also a policy choice,” Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, told reporters.

Larson and other lawmakers want to change state law to flip Wisconsin’s free and reduced school lunch program from an “opt-in” to an “opt-out.’

“We want to start with the baseline of all students having access to school meals,” Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, said.

Currently, Wisconsin provides free school lunches to all families of four who make up to $39,000 a-year. Families of four who make up to $55,000 a year qualify for reduced price school lunches.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction does not release how many students qualify.

Tom McCarthy with DPI, however, said the solution is simply for the state to spend more money.

“It’s an admission that this costs money,” McCarthy said Monday. “The idea is that an investment in food and nutrition for kids is something that we have resources to pull off right now, and it is easier than we like to admit.”

Rep. Kristina Shelton, D-Green Bay, said it would cost $120 million a year. She wants to take the money from Wisconsin’s nearly $7 billion budget surplus.

“We believe that kids are worth it,” Shelton added.

Gov. Tony Evers asked the legislature to include a free lunch for all program in the new state budget, but Republican lawmakers shot down his request.

Shelton, Hong and Larson are now pushing the idea as a stand-alone piece of legislation.

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