Milk cartons

Madison public school students who receive breakfast at school are seeing menu choices with less sugar, including no more chocolate milk.

Wisconsin may be the Dairy State but a school milk program, along with a breakfast meal plan for students, could go sour at some schools in the wake of aid cuts in Gov. Scott Walker's budget that were approved last month.

As the dust settles around the nearly $800 million loss in state aid for public schools in the 2011-13 budget, the realities of what may be missing when students go back to school this fall are starting to emerge. In some Wisconsin districts, that could include school breakfast programs and what's known as the school day milk program.

Both programs were part of a long list of categorical aids to public schools that took an across-the-board, 10 percent cut in the budget. Over the next two years, the school breakfast program will see a cut in state aid of $557,000 and the school milk plan will be cut by $137,000.

The state aid supplements federal funds for meal programs. In recent years, student participation in school breakfast programs has been increasing. Economically disadvantaged students, whose numbers have gone up in Wisconsin over the last five years from about 30 percent to more than 39 percent of all public schoolchildren, are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals. The milk program, which exclusively uses milk from Wisconsin dairies, depends on a combination of state aid and money from local districts.

The Department of Public Instruction had asked for an increase of nearly $795,000 over the two-year budget to maintain the state reimbursement rate for the school breakfast program. Instead, school districts will see a significant decrease in the amount of money they have available for morning meals for their students.

June Paul, of the DPI's nutrition group, says she is concerned that some of the state's poorest school districts may not be able to come up with the additional funds to keep their breakfast or milk programs in the black, and may have to eliminate them. The state will have 424 school districts during the 2011-2012 school year. Those with declining enrollments and increasingly needy students have been particularly hard hit by 18 years of revenue limits that have not allowed them to keep up with the cost of inflation. 

"The cost of a meal is the cost of a meal," Paul says, explaining that when the state aid that supplements the federal meal program or the milk program drops, it's the school district that must figure out how to cover the balance of the cost.

"A 10 percent drop (in aid) is actually a pretty big cut, especially when food costs are increasing and labor costs are increasing, too." she says. And the number of needy students is up.

According to research on nutrition and learning, school breakfast and snack programs help kids concentrate in the classroom, increase student achievement, and reduce discipline problems.

Laura Wilford, a dietitian and director of the Wisconsin Dairy Council at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, agrees that the reduction in support from the state for both the breakfast program and the school milk program could be a problem for hungry kids.

"Our goal, of course, is to make sure children are getting three servings of dairy a day because they need the calcium for their growing bones," she says. The state-supported milk program, which provides two of those servings, goes a long way toward meeting those requirements.

But if cash-strapped school districts are forced to make a choice between paying for a new roof or buying gas for school buses, a voluntary program like daily school milk may be dropped, Wilford says.

School milk is paid for by a combination of local and state funds, with the amount from the state -- now reduced by 10 percent -- capped at a fixed level.  

"If more kids sign up, it's up to each school board and superintendent to figure it out. There's only so much to go around," she adds. 

A member of the Wisconsin Senate's Education Committee, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, has been talking for several months about the problems of rural school districts, and her concerns about the impact of the categorical aid cuts to schools.

"The cuts to the school breakfast and milk program are good examples of the pattern we've seen throughout the discussion surrounding this budget," Vinehout tells me in a phone interview. Schools hammered by budget cuts, she adds, are most likely to cut school breakfast and milk programs and their neediest children will suffer most.

"The governor says he believes in shared sacrifice. I guess that means the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the children," Vinehout says.

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