Students in several Wisconsin school districts are dealing with a lunch meal crisis in which their food would be of low quantity as well as poor quality. This has been a problem for a while now as PBS Wisconsin Watch highlighted how students in Kenosha Unified School District, throughout the 2021-22 academic year, noticed smaller portion sizes and reported being served undercooked meats as well as fruits and vegetables that were covered in dark spots. Before this current academic year started, teachers and parents in the Madison Metropolitan School District were already alarmed about the quality of school lunches.
Officials in these school districts say that labor shortages and ongoing supply chain issues, both brought on by the pandemic, are among the reasons that negatively affected the quantity and quality of nutritious school lunches. In regards to labor shortage, the officials claim that there are a number of job listings open for school criteria staff. Congress tried to help mitigate the impact of the global supply chain disruptions to school meals when they passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act back in 2020. It was meant to provide federal waivers that provided more flexibility for school meal distribution and made school meals temporarily free for all students.
The irony is that while these waivers were a short term solution to the supply chain issue, up until the program ended, they created another problem in terms of food quality. Because the federal waivers relaxed nutritional requirements for school meals, there was an increase in pre-packaged, grab-and-go foods which are known for not being of the best quality. But now that the program has ended, there are countless children from low income families who are at risk of going hungry or sick as they often rely on these free lunch programs.
For these students, school lunches, regardless of quality, are the only free meal they regularly have on a daily basis throughout the work week. If the food they are being served are of such poor quality that there are mold and dark spots, then they risk going hungry for not eating the food or getting sick since they prefer that over continuing to starve. In either scenario the students will not be able to focus on their education.
While the global supply chain issue is still an issue, what else is there that can be done to solve this problem? Student activism is one option as Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) have created a petition demanding changes of Milwaukee Public Schools. Some of these demands include hiring more lunch staff to cook the meals, increasing their wages as well as benefits, and providing fresh cooked lunches at schools with locally sourced ingredients. In fact, locally sourced foods in school meals is a favored solution among many like the Wisconsin Farm to School program who advocate for strengthening local agricultural economies while providing more nutritious local foods for school lunches.
The USDA announced back in September this year that it would be entering a cooperative agreement with Wisconsin for more than $3.4 million to increase the states’ purchase of nutritious, local foods for school meal programs. Along with farm-to-school programs, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) back in June this year provided other ideas on what state legislatures can do for school lunches such as; establishing universal free school meals; expanding the offerings and flexibilities for school breakfast; and legally prohibiting any form of school meal debt that could harm low income families.