Summer meal assistance will now be permanent for Wisconsin students

Wisconsin Capitol

Wisconsin students and their families will be able to get financial support for meals and groceries over the summer with the help of a newly permanent federal program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Wednesday that Wisconsin was among 35 states, five U.S. territories and four tribes that will implement Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer programs this summer.

“Reliable, healthy meals help our children grow and learn, but all too often, the most reliable meals children can access on a daily basis are provided by schools. I’m glad to see this program become permanent in Wisconsin to help meet the needs of working families during the summer,” Democratic state Sen. Brad Pfaff told the Wisconsin Independent in an email.

The Summer EBT program helps families who qualify for free or reduced meals afford groceries while schools are closed over the summer. The families are eligible to receive $40 per child per month over the summer to help with groceries, or $120 per child.

The program could help roughly half of Wisconsin students at a time when food prices are on the rise due to inflation. In the 2021-22 school year, 40% of Wisconsin’s public school students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and in the 2017-18 school year over a half million students in Wisconsin received free or reduced-cost lunch, according to the Applied Population Lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Summer EBT was piloted across the country for several years until Congress established in December 2022 that the program would be permanent starting in 2024.

While the program is expected to assist nearly 21 million children across the United States and provide up to $2.5 billion in funding, 15 Republican governors have chosen not to accept the federal assistance for their states, among them the administration of Gov. Kim Reynolds of neighboring state Iowa, which announced it would expand an existing state program that feeds children during the summer.

“Federal COVID-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families. An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic,” Reynolds said in a statement.

Under the School Meals Program, students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals based on the size of their household and its total income. In Wisconsin, a family of four with a yearly income of $39,000 or less would qualify for free meals, while a family of four with a yearly income of $55,000 would qualify for reduced costs. Families who qualify for this assistance will be eligible for Summer EBT benefits.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin offered free meals to all students regardless of financial status with the help of federal relief funding. But that program ended at the start of the 2022-23 school year.

Democratic Wisconsin state legislators have since proposed making universal free school meals permanent, but none of their efforts have been successful. Funding of such a program would need to be approved in a state budget or by passing a bill through the state Legislature.

Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to include funding for free meals for all students in his most recent biennial budget last spring, but Republican legislators ultimately cut it.

On Dec. 6, 2023, a group of members of the State Assembly reintroduced a bill that would provide free breakfast and lunch for all students by reimbursing schools for the cost of the meals.

“Healthy School Meals for All means making school breakfast and lunch available to all Wisconsin K-12 students at no charge. School meals would be treated the same as textbooks, gym equipment or library books — as an important resource to support learning and development,” a group called the Healthy School Meals for All Wisconsin Coalition, which counts lawmakers among its members, says on its website.

The Wisconsin Independent reached out to Evers and Democratic Rep. Kristina Shelton, who has proposed free school meal bills in the past, for comment on the Summer EBT program and future efforts to expand free school meals, but did not receive a response from either as of publishing time.
In addition to Summer EBT, the government of Wisconsin also administers the federal Summer Food Service Program, which provides free meals and snacks in low-income areas at schools and other community spaces during the summer months.