News Column

The Wisconsin State Journal Chris Rickert column

June 26, 2014

By Chris Rickert, The Wisconsin State Journal

June 26--Madisonians usually aren't too keen on doling out public subsidies to people who don't need them.

There's that old saw about "tax breaks for millionaires," of course, but also past outrage over a proposed taxpayer loan for Edgewater hotel renovators and brewing discontent over a potential taxpayer loan for the Judge Doyle Square developer.

Providing government-funded breakfast and lunch to every student in seven Madison public schools, though, probably won't inspire similar objections about welfare for the schools' middle- and upper-class children.

Free meals for some 2,800 children at Allis, Falk, Lake View, Leopold, Mendota, Sherman and Wright schools could start next year through a 4-year-old federal program to provide meals to all students at schools in high-poverty areas. On average, about 77 percent of students at the seven Madison schools were "economically disadvantaged" last school year, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction. That means about 2,100 students were already eligible for subsidized meals though the federal government's long-standing -- and necessary -- free-and-reduced-price lunch program.

But if the schools are accepted into the program, parents of the rest will no longer have to buy the Cheerios, juice boxes, and peanut-butter-and-jelly fixings they've proved capable of buying until now.

Assuming a 10 percent increase in meals, up to $1.5 million in federal dollars would cover the cost-shifting, according to district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson. That would make the program cost-neutral for the district -- if not for taxpayers at large.

The main driver of the food-for-all approach is that getting free meals can subject poor children to social stigma.

"(T)here has long been research linking stigma to the pragmatic concern of reduced participation of low-income kids in school meal programs," according to Judi Bartfeld, who studies food insecurity at the UW-Madison's Institute for Research on Poverty.

It's not clear this dynamic applies in Madison.

"(W)e do carefully work to protect free-and-reduced status of students," Strauch-Nelson said. "There is one (lunch) line and most students pay through accounts, so there would not be a way for others to see it."

My two older kids, for instance, didn't know why some of their classmates always got "hot lunch" at their Madison school, which is not of the seven.

Not that there aren't plenty of other ways for kids to figure out which of their peers are economically or socially disadvantaged -- from the quality of their clothes and toys, to living in a single-parent household. Kids aren't stupid, after all.

It's hard to argue against free government meals for kids -- no matter how much money their parents make. But feeding children of affluence isn't like making sure they have clean water, police and fire protection, and other basic needs that are most logically and cheaply provided en masse, by government, with tax dollars. Feeding your kids is one of parents' most basic responsibilities -- one you'd hope parents would be loath to give up and government would avoid taking over.

Plus, everyone knows there are no free lunches.


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Source: Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)

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