On Friday, The Washington Post ran a story about the Waukesha, Wisconsin school board’s unanimous decision to opt out of a federal pandemic school meal program. Within three days of its publication, and after being doxxed and receiving death threats and explicit messages, the school board reversed course. 

So what happened in Waukesha? 

In April, the federal government gave local school boards discretion to decide whether to continue into this school year a special taxpayer-funded summer and vacation food service program called the Seamless Summer Option. This, despite the fact that “the statute does not allow school food authorities to provide [Seamless Summer Option] meals when schools are open during the regular school year.” 

In June, the Waukesha school board opted to return to the National School Lunch Program, which still provides kids meals at no or reduced cost, but limits participation to those who cannot afford meals. (Not all school districts in Wisconsin participated in the school lunch program or in the pandemic Seamless Summer Option, because both are based on eligibility requirements.) Two months after the board opted out, and just days before the start of school, The Washington Post published the story about the switch with this hyperbolic headline: “A school district opted out of a free meals program, saying students could ‘become spoiled.’” Blogs and other news organizations picked up the story. 

Contrary to the national media headline, however, the school district member did not say that poor students would become spoiled by public school lunch assistance. School board member Karin Rajnicek was referring to the decision not to provide lunches to students whose parents have the means to buy lunches for their own children. Rajnicek explained, “The spoiled I referred to is me. It’s all of us if we rely on this system when we can provide for ourselves.” She wanted to buy lunches for her children so that public funding could be directed to her kids’ classmates who are in need. She told Wisconsin Public Radio:

“This SSO program is wasteful by design… It inappropriately combines meeting basic needs for struggling families with federally-backed perks for high income families… Think about how much more good we could do with our food services resources if they weren’t wasted on families that had the means to pay.”

To make its determination whether to continue the meal program, the school board examined their local budget. The school district had a $1.75 million budget surplus, but federal government regulations for school lunch programs prevent use of that surplus to pay down school lunch debts of students who were unable to pay. Although the school board was opting out of the pandemic program, they would continue to participate in another federal school meal program. As Wisconsin 12 News reported, the school board decided to opt out because over 60% of families no longer participated in the program, food and resources were wasted, and the district would no longer have the family-specific applications on file for the students most in need to be financially eligible for the National School Lunch Program and other means-tested school programs. After the national media spun the story, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on threats and intimidation against school board members:

Some board members said they’d received threats and been doxxed after the Washington Post reported on their choice to end the program. Some said if the board reversed course, it would be giving in to a “hateful mob” and giving over power to the federal government.

Some parents wanted to teach their own kids the importance of putting in a hard day’s work, taking responsibility for oneself so that those in need can use scarce resources, and not wasting food. But instead, extremists intervened online, recruiting people nationwide to bully others into capitulating to their demands. Is that what parents across this country really want to teach their kids?