Falk Elementary (copy)

In this 2014 photo, students line up for lunch at Falk Elementary School.  

Food has the power to make students feel many things: nourishment, joy, safety, a sense of belonging, community connection and care. Food also has the power to make students feel hunger, shame and isolation, all of which can lead to behavioral, emotional, mental health and academic problems. Our schools are the cornerstones of our communities, but Madison’s reputation as a leader in healthy, sustainable food — from farmers markets and farm-to-fork restaurants to community gardens and food councils — shouldn’t stop at the school door.

The best way for the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) to leverage the expected $42.4 million in federal ESSER III funding to support student learning and mental health is to make a transformative investment in the quality and experience of school meals. Currently, the district produces pre-plated school meals in a large central kitchen that has been used to feed MMSD students since the early 1990s. Dramatically upgrading school meal infrastructure to support scratch cooking and farm-to-school sourcing would have a positive and equitable impact across all schools and grade levels.

If you ask a student how they’d like the funds to be used, chances are they might just say “school lunch.” After visiting countless classrooms in the school district, time and again the kids have shared their wish for fresh homemade food that tastes good and is good for you. They have also expressed their concerns about the environmental impact of thousands of plastic containers and uneaten food getting tossed out each school day.

While MMSD’s school meals meet or exceed the nutritional guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the current model is leaving far too many students hungry and creating the conditions for children to experience shame and stigma related to the necessary act of eating at school. Before the pandemic, when school lunch was operating like “normal,” only 59% of MMSD students who qualified for free or reduced lunch and 24% of students from more affluent households chose to eat school lunch on a typical day, according to October 2019 data.

Students’ access to and experiences with school food is an important, but often overlooked, contributor to academic success and school climate. Students deserve to have their voices heard and respected through a participatory process focused on reimagining MMSD’s school food program in ways that promote student belonging and contribute to building sustainable and healthy school communities.

Scratch cooking is a cost-effective and evidence-based strategy for improving student health, academic achievement and well-being. Studies show that scratch cooking leads to healthier, tastier, more attractive meals, less waste and higher participation among students and staff. It also opens up more possibilities for supporting local farmers and creates more job advancement opportunities for school nutrition workers.

To be sure, making a large capital investment in the district’s school meal infrastructure won’t fix every issue that needs to be addressed. Students need more time to eat, and school nutrition workers, who are currently the lowest paid workers in the district, need higher wages and benefits. The district must simultaneously address these issues of justice in order to maximize the power and potential of school meals to sustainably benefit our communities.

Every MMSD school can be a place where children, staff, and families thrive, but not without ensuring that school meals and the spaces where children eat are sources of physical and mental nourishment for all. As our School Board members and superintendent deliberate about how to prioritize ESSER III funds, we are calling on them to invest in the nutrition, quality, and experience of school meals. This would have the added benefit of reducing stress on MMSD teachers and support staff whose jobs are made more challenging when students are hungry or ashamed. It is our moral obligation to invest in our kids and our shared future. Join us in calling on our school leaders to rebuild and revitalize how we feed our kids.

State Sen. Melissa Agard is a lifelong Madison resident, MMSD alumna and mom of four boys, all of whom are attending or previously attended the Madison Metropolitan School District. She represents the 16th Senate District of Wisconsin. Jennifer Gaddis is a mom, an associate professor in the Department of Civil Society and Community Studies at UW-Madison, and the author of "The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools." State Rep. Francesca Hong is a mom, service industry worker, community organizer, and the first Asian American elected as a Wisconsin state representative. She represents the 76th Assembly District in Madison.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.