Starting this school year, the federal government will pay for meals for all Milwaukee Public Schools students.
The district made the formal announcement Monday. The federal government has offered to cover the cost of meals for all students if 63 percent of a district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In MPS, the percentages exceeds 80 percent.
The program is already up and running at a school on the city's south side.
Student have been back at Reagan High School for more than a week. At noon Monday, dozens worked their way through lines in the cafeteria to grab lunch. There are two stations, one for cold food—a turkey sandwich, an apple or nectarine, carrots and celery. But most wait in line for the hot lunch option.
“Today is mini corn dogs, tater tots, broccoli and apple sauce,” Tina Barkstrom says. She runs MPS's Division of School Nutrition Services.
“To drink, we have skim white milk, 1 percent white milk, skim chocolate and we also have lactose free milk for individuals who need that,” Barkstrom says.
Of the five options given, students are only required to take three, and one must be a fruit or vegetable. Barkstrom says because kids don’t have to take everything, they usually only take what they plan to eat so there’s not a lot of waste.
A lunch like this used to cost $2.50 for students who did not qualify for a federal reduction. Now free lunch is available to everyone at Reagan, and Barkstrom likes the change.
“Families maybe didn’t fill out applications because they…for whatever reason they didn’t want to, or it also could be that students coming into the lunchroom sometimes there’s that stigma when they’re eating that people are going to think I’m free,” Barkstrom says. "Now that stigma is completely gone because everybody has the same access to healthy school breakfast and lunches at no charge."
Mike Roemer, principal of Reagan, says school has only been in session for a week, but already, it’s noticed a huge uptick in the number of students eating school meals.
“So last year, for example, at lunch time we would average around 650 to 675 lunches, we’ve seen about a 30 percent increase in that. We’re up to close to 900 plus, and we’ve seen even a greater increase in our breakfast program,” Roemer says.
Roemer says the ultimate goal of free meals is to ensure that every student is fueled to participate in class and learn.