Why Padma Lakshmi Is Furious At This School District

Fans of Padma Lakshmi know that the "Top Chef" star is more than just a TV host and former model. Since landing the top role of host on the long-running hit Bravo series, Lakshmi has seen her fame and influence grow. Instead of just finding new ways to promote her "brand," increase her fame, and enrich herself, Lakshmi has used her expansive platform as a tool to shed light on the causes and issues that are important to her.

Lakshmi is an advocate for endometriosis patients (per Endometriosis Foundation of America). This champion of independent restaurants also produced the "Taste the Nation" series for Hulu, a passion project that "masterfully" amplifies "the voices and untold stories that have shaped American food as we know it" (per Bon Appétit). Another cause close to her heart has been school nutrition. 

In 2010, Lakshmi petitioned the United States Congress to support the Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act (H.R. 5504), which was proposed to help schools to serve more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat, plant-based foods (via The Daily Dish). In a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, she said the bill would "help students form healthy habits and also help prevent" a host of health problems down the road.

Speaking as a mother and cookbook author, Lakshmi described herself as "very passionate" about ensuring people had access to nutritious meals. So when a school district in Wisconsin recently decided to turn down federally funded meals for students, she spoke out.

The stance Lakshmi found 'abhorrent'

Per an August 27 report by The Washington Post, the Waukesha School District distinguished itself as the only district in all of Wisconsin that qualified for federal funding devoted to school meals yet refused to accept it. The money would have supplied free meals for all students without taking family income into account. But instead, officials voted to make families apply for free or discounted meals, reverting to the pre-pandemic policy. Hundreds of parents and teachers were shocked. Among the concerns raised by critics was that some households didn't qualify or didn't apply under the old system. "We have seen kids that don't eat," explained a district official. According to Salon, Waukesha parents and teachers are fighting to reinstate the program, participation in which grew by 37% amidst the pandemic. 

It's worth noting that the Waukesha School District board made a point about wanting to stem food waste (for instance, many high schoolers threw out free breakfasts they received). However, according to the Post, a school board member argued that the federal aid risked causing families to "become spoiled." Moreover, the assistant superintendent of business services claimed people could develop a "slow addiction" to the free meals. Padma Lakshmi retweeted the Washington Post article and prefaced her post with the comment, "Food and housing are basic human needs. This is abhorrent."

Twitter users who responded to Lakshmi largely seemed to agree. "This literally brings me to tears," wrote one person. Another commenter sarcastically said, "can't have these kids being used to food every day."